The United Nations said Friday that it is investigating the alleged killing of dozens of people in the Central African Republic last week by CAR forces and mercenaries of the Russian private military company Wagner.
More than 30 civilians were reportedly killed, some by stray bullets, in the January 16-17 operation near the town of Bria that targeted the Union for Peace rebel group, according to UN officials speaking anonymously.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that the UN mission known as MINUSCA in the country received reports of the incident, involving CAR troops and "other security personnel."
"We are currently confirming the number of casualties and displacement," Dujarric said.
He said that MINUSCA had dispatched a human rights team accompanied by security personnel to the incident area, and that it "continues to assess the situation, ensuring necessary measures to be taken to protect civilians."
A military source in the country suggested the fighting could still be ongoing.
"Central African forces and the Russians are committing a massacre," the source told AFP, declining to be identified.
"There have been summary executions and we are talking about 50 deaths," the person said.
- 'Grave abuses' -
Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, spokesman for the CAR presidency, told AFP that he had "no knowledge of this attack."
But in mid-2021, UN experts deployed to CAR expressed strong concerns over reports of "grave human rights abuses" by Russian mercenaries who are contracted to support government forces.
The Wagner group is reputed to be close to the Kremlin, and critics say it takes orders from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Russia, though, has rejected criticism and claimed at the time that the group involved only "instructors" for the CAR military.
Moscow has said it has some 1,135 "unarmed trainers" in the country. But local independent groups, France and the United Nations say at least some are from the Wagner group, which now has an armed presence in several African countries including Libya and Mali.
At the last meeting of the UN Security Council on the conflict in the Central African Republic, the United States demanded that Moscow investigate the abuses blamed on the Russians.
The UN experts group, around a dozen people sent to monitor an arms embargo on the conflict-torn country, has not been functioning since August 31.
Russia has blocked a renewal of their mandate, claiming their makeup is tilted toward the West and does not reflect true geographic diversity.
On Friday diplomats said the block remains in place, and Western officials believe Russia sees it beneficial to prevent a renewal of the group's mission.