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Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?

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Claim: Russian Airplane with registration number: RA-76845 conveyed Wagner group soldiers to Niger Republic on Sunday, August 20, amid an ongoing coup in the country. The claim went viral days before the reported death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary group, on August 23.

Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?

Verdict: False. According to the flight tracker, the aeroplane only moved from Syria to Bamako on the said date, after which it returned to Moscow the following day. 

Full Text

Following the July 26 coup in Niger Republic, the social media space has been awash with misinformation regarding happenings in the West African country. 

Recall that Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed in a coup led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani. 

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had made known its intention to reinstate civil rule in the country even if it requires military force. This, however, has been met with criticism, particularly from Nigerians. The ECOWAS, led by Bola Tinubu, is weighing alternatives to restore peace in the country. 

The criticisms of the proposed military action in Niger followed fears that such reactions could adversely affect Nigeria and other West African countries.

Meanwhile, there are narratives surrounding Russia’s intervention in the Niger coup. Several media reports established that the coup leaders had sought help from the Russian Mercenary group Wagner.

In a voice message shared on Telegram channels associated with Wagner, the mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was said to have hailed the Niger coup, which he described as a welcome development. 

However, the group had not officially confirmed its involvement in the coup.

Also, recently, a video from the Telegram channel showed Mr Prigozhin in a desert in camouflage with a rifle in his hands. Though the location of the video had yet to be ascertained, several news reports had suggested the video clip was shot in Africa. 

“We are working. The temperature is plus 50 (degrees Celsius). Everything is how we like it,” he was quoted as saying.

On the Nigerian social media space, fears continue to mount over ECOWAS intervention in Niger coup and the resultant effect on Nigeria’s territorial integrity and defence. 

Amid conversations around the coup, a social media user, J.C Okechukwu @jcokechukwu, posted a claim on his X (formerly Twitter) handle claiming a Russian military plane with registration number RA-76845 had just transported Wagner group soldiers from Syria to Niamey, the Niger Republic Capital. 

He claims the Wagner group has told the new Nigerien administration,

“Never to worry about any foreign army on Niger soil and specifically assured the leadership that Wagner will take on the Americans head on if they ever dare to get involved in the conflict with ECOWAS, or try to deploy their drones.”

When this report was filed, the post had been viewed over one million times and had over 4,000 retweets.

The post, alongside the images attached, attracted the views of many X users who believed the claim, while some doubted its authenticity. A user @PrinceSomorin, commented, 

“This is practically in our doorstep.”

Another user @KMutisi stated, “ECOWAS must stop being used by France & the US…. No African should die fighting for Western imperial interests.”

Also, DUBAWA observed that many X users reshared the post on their handles, further fuelling misinformation as seen here, here and here

Verification

A look into one of the Telegram Channels affiliated with the Wagner Mercenary Group showed that the aircraft departed Moscow, Russia, on August 18 and headed to Bamako with a stopover in Damascus. The Intel was posted on August 19. 

Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?
Screenshot of Telegram post.

Also, DUBAWA made use of Planefinder, a flight-tracking app. Details from the search revealed that the Ilyushin IL-76-TD aircraft was operated by MCHS Rossii Guap (Ministry for Emergency Situations). Also, it showed that the plane had been en route to undisclosed locations from August 15 to 21 at different times respectively. 

Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?
Screenshot of flight details from PlaneFinder
Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?

Using FlightAware, another flight tracking app, search results showed that the aircraft took off from Zhukovsky International Airport (Moscow, Moskovskaya) Zia on August 15 and arrived at Uytash airport (Makhachkala), a civil airport in Russia. 

On the same day, it reportedly moved to Veliky Ustyug, another area in Russia. On August 18, the flight departed from MSK near Moscow, Russian Federation and landed at Damascus Int. 

By August 19, the aircraft had moved from Damascus to Bamako and on 20th August it was en route from Bamako to Damascus, Syria. On Monday, it reportedly moved from Syria to Russia. 

Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?
Did Russian aeroplane convey Wagner group soldiers to coup-ravaged Niger Republic?
Screenshot of flight details from Flight-aware

A further search on Planespotters.net showed that the picture had been originally taken at the Tyumen Roschino (TJM / USTR) airport in Russia on May 13, 2023. The aircraft’s serial number provided was 1043420696. 

Therefore, the image posted by the social media user does not depict the Russian aircraft landing on Niger’s soil as of August 2023. 

Also, DUBAWA observed that information posted on the Wagner group’s telegram channels suggests interest in the Niger coup. However, according to an August 12 post on one of the channels, “PMC Wagner has not yet been recorded on the territory of Niger.”

Another post on August 18, said,

“There are no wagnerites in Niger now, but this doesn’t mean they cannot appear quickly.”

The Wagner group has established a presence in the neighbouring countries of Mali and the Central African Republic. There are fears that the group may get to the Niger Republic shortly.  

In a fresh twist, on August 23, Mr Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary chief, reportedly died in a plane crash in Moscow, Russia. According to media reports, seven passengers were on board and three crew.

Conclusion

The claim that a Russian Airplane with registration number: RA-76845 flew Wagner group soldiers to Niger Republic on Sunday, August 20, is false. The viral picture of the plane was originally taken at a Russian airport on May 13, 2023.

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