The Russian mercenary group Wagner has been supplying Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces with missiles to aid their fight against the country’s army, Sudanese and regional diplomatic sources have told CNN.
The sources said the surface-to-air missiles have significantly buttressed RSF paramilitary fighters and their leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo as he battles for power with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s military ruler and the head of its armed forces.
In bordering Libya, where a Wagner-backed rogue general, Khalifa Haftar, controls swathes of land, satellite imagery supports these claims, showing an unusual uptick in activity on Wagner bases.
The powerful Russian mercenary group has played a public and pivotal role in Moscow’s foreign military campaigns, namely in Ukraine, and has repeatedly been accused of committing atrocities. In Africa, it has helped to prop up Moscow’s growing influence and seizing of resources.
Dagalo and Burhan had been jockeying for power in negotiations over restoring civilian leadership in Sudan before talks broke down, erupting into some of the worst violence the country has seen in decades.
The fighting has claimed hundreds of lives and deprived millions of people from electricity, water and food.
Satellite images show increased activity
Satellite images analyzed by CNN and open-source group “All Eyes on Wagner” show one Russian transport plane shuttling between two key Libyan airbases belonging to Haftar and used by the sanctioned Russian fighting group.
Haftar has backed the RSF, sources say, although he denies taking sides. And increased Wagner activity at Haftar’s bases, combined with claims by Sudanese and regional diplomatic sources, suggests that both Russia and the Libyan general may have been preparing to support the RSF even before the eruption of violence.
The uptick in movement by the Ilyushin-76 transport aircraft started two days before the conflict in Sudan began on Saturday, and continued until at least Wednesday, according to satellite images and Netherlands-based open-source specialist Gerjon.
That plane, one of a class of aircraft known by the NATO designation Candid, flew from Haftar’s Khadim airbase in Libya to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia – where Russia has a major airbase – on Thursday, April 13. The next day, it flew from Latakia back to Khadim. The day after that, it flew again to another Haftar airbase in Libya’s Jufra. It parked in a secluded area, something flight tracker Gerjon considered highly unusual. This was the day the conflict erupted.
The transport plane returned to Latakia on Tuesday before flying back to the Libyan militia airbase of Khadim and then to Jufra, according to Gerjon’s research. That day, Russia airdropped surface-to-air missiles to Dagalo’s militia positions in northwest Sudan, according to regional and Sudanese sources.
For years, Dagalo has been a key beneficiary from Russian involvement in Sudan, as the primary recipient of Moscow’s weapons and training.
A July 2022 CNN investigation exposed deepening ties between Moscow and Sudan’s military leadership, who granted Russia access to the east African country’s gold riches in exchange for military and political support. The relationship began in earnest after Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, when Russia began to eye African gold riches as an avenue to circumvent a slew of Western sanctions.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the wave of sanctions that followed accelerated Russia’s gold plunder in Sudan and further propped up military rule, increasing Wagner activity in the country.
On the day before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Dagalo headed a Sudanese delegation in Moscow to “advance relations” between the two countries.
Burhan and the Sudanese army also previously received backing from Russia. Burhan and Dagalo were allies before the start of the fighting. Together they led coups in 2019 and 2021. Both leaders were also previously backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Both Middle Eastern powerhouses have called for calm in Sudan, amid fears of broader regional repercussions.
Yet foreign actors are already beginning to intervene in the conflict. Egypt has a long-standing relationship with Burhan and has privately backed him in the power struggle, according to Sudanese and regional diplomatic sources. A group of Egyptian soldiers were captured by the RSF at a military airport in northern Sudan on the first day of the violence, and released days later.
In a statement to CNN, the RSF denied receiving aid from Russia and Libya. It reiterated its denial on Friday and alleged that its rival, al-Burhan’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), had aligned itself “with these foreign forces, not RSF.”
CNN has reached out to SAF for comment.
Russian Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin denied any involvement in the conflict.
“Let me reiterate once more: Wagner PMC is in no way involved in the Sudanese conflict,” Prigozhin said on the group’s official Telegram Channel. “Questions from the media about any assistance to General Daglo, or Al-Burhan, or any other individuals in Sudan are nothing more than an attempt at provocation.”
Haftar has yet to respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
CNN’s Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.