Speculation remains rife that a Soviet-era plane that crashed on a runway in Mali after touching down late on September 23, and then burst into flames, was linked to the Russian Wagner private military company (PMC), despite unofficial denials.
The Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft had been spotted in various African regions, often coinciding with the presence of paramilitary forces such as Wagner and other parts of the continent, Newsweek reports.
Social media users noted that the aircraft that crashed was registered in Belarus with tail number EW-412TH, according to the US magazine. It was flying a route from the Belarusian capital Minsk to Mali and was due to head to Istanbul.
Wagner is Russia’s de facto main military force in Africa and has made significant profits working on behalf of politicians on the continent, many of them unpopular, authoritarian leaders, with payment often in the form of mining concessions.
Anti-government sources in Mali, which is run by a military junta, said that the plane may have been linked to Wagner while local sources suggested that it was a Malian Army aircraft carrying equipment.
The Ilyushin-76 is a multi-purpose, fixed-wing, four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter often used to deliver heavy machinery to remote areas.
An airport source and local official told the Paris-based news magazine Jeune Afrique that the plane that crashed belonged to the Malian army, had been transporting Wagner soldiers, and was overloaded.
The Telegram account Grey Zone, which has links to Wagner, denied that there were PMC members on board at the time of its crash at Gao International Airport.
"In an information vacuum, there are rumours that the plane belonged to the Wagner Group. But this is not true," said a post on September 27. "This chartered Il-76 board was used by local forces to transport goods for various purposes. There were no personnel of the Wagner Group on this board."
Wagner arrived in Mali in December 2021 and has been actively enhancing its capabilities at its Bamako base, according to an assessment by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and established a strong presence near Bamako's Modibo Keita International Airport.
In recent months, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has begun openly supporting military juntas in West Africa, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
This move follows Moscow’s decision to subsume Wagner into the structure of the army, following a mutiny against the MoD in June led by its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash outside Moscow in late August, widely believed to have been caused by an explosion on board.
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