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The Wagner Group, a collection of Russian-backed mercenaries known to be operating at the behest of the Kremlin in Ukraine, are reportedly recruiting African rebels from prisons in the Central African Republic to be deployed overseas, new reports suggest. Those said to be sprung from jail were being held for crimes including murder and the rape of women and children.

Military sources in the central African state told the Daily Beast yesterday that “since October, they [members of the Wagner Group] have been walking into military and police cells and releasing rebels, including those held for attacking Bokolobo village in May and for raping women and girls. Nobody can stop them because the Government has given them so much power to act the way they want.”

Another source said rebels who had killed Government soldiers during an assault in Bakouma, in the south-east of the country, in April, have also been freed. The local recruiters, referred to as “Black Russians”, are said to have told the more than 20 new conscripts that they “needed urgent manpower in Mali and Ukraine”.