The Central African Republic on Thursday released four French soldiers in the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the CAR, whose arrest sparked condemnation from the UN, the mission said.
“The four MINUSCA personnel members who were arrested… at Bangui airport have just been freed,” the mission’s chief, Mankeur Ndiaye, said on Twitter.
The public prosecutor in Bangui said the four soldiers would not be charged.
Under the agreement that governs relations between the UN peacekeeping mission and the government, “we cannot hear them before a judge and, faced with this obstacle, the prosecution decided to proceed without further action,” prosecutor Didier Tambo told AFP.
The four soldiers — members of the elite French Foreign Legion, with French, Romanian, Bulgarian and Italian nationalities — were arrested at the airport on Monday.
They had gone there to escort MINUSCA’s military chief, General Stephane Marchenoir, who was taking a plane to Europe, the French embassy and the UN said.
But accusations instantly circulated on social media that they had planned to “assassinate” President Faustin Archange Touadera — allegations coinciding with a row with France over Touadera’s use of Russian paramilitaries.
The postings on social media included photographs of their weapons spread out on the ground, as well as their IDs, along with a video of their arrest.
France and the UN fiercely criticized what they described as media manipulation, but the following day the CAR public prosecutor’s office said it had opened a “routine inquiry to shed light on the facts.”
It said the “suspicious” vehicle carried four automatic pistols, three assault rifles, a machine gun and grenades, and that the four men onboard had been “less than 30 meters (yards) from the passing presidential motorcade.”
“The vehicle had been followed by police intelligence for the past two months,” prosecutor Laurent Lengande added.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the arrest and demanded the immediate release of the four.
He accused the CAR authorities of failing to observe procedures when a member of the peacekeeping force is suspected of having committed an offense.
The incident coincided with French and US allegations at the UN Security Council on Tuesday that “mercenaries” from Russia’s Wagner group, hired by the CAR, killed dozens of civilians last month.
The CAR plunged into bloodshed along sectarian lines in 2013 when the then president, Francois Bozize, was toppled by a predominantly Muslim militia.
Military intervention by France, the country’s former colonial power, helped stabilize the situation, enabling the deployment of MINUSCA.
But peace today remains elusive, and powerful armed groups that arose during the conflict retain significant clout.
A coalition of them tried to topple Touadera ahead of elections in December 2020, but was thwarted after Russia flew in hundreds of paramilitaries and Rwanda sent its own military contingent.
The Kremlin describes the Russians as “unarmed instructors,” while the UN and France say they are Wagner personnel who have carried out repeated abuses.