Italian politicians have hit out at the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, headed by Vladimir Putin’s crony, Yevgeny Prigozhin, saying it was provoking migrants to flee. Some 20,000 people have arrived on Italy’s shores this year in a move the government believes is deliberate. Italian defence minister Guido Crosetto described the increase in migrants, which he said is instigated by the Russian fighters’ presence in Africa, as part of a “clear strategy of hybrid warfare”.
In this year alone, more than 17,592 people have arrived in Italy by sea compared to 5,976 in the same period last year, according to data compiled by the Italian Ministry of Interior.
Some 4,500 arrived over just three days this month, many of whom are sub-Saharan Africans and Bangladeshis.
The Wagner group, founded by Prigozhin in 2014, is believed to be operating in African countries such as Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic.
In a statement, Mr Crosetto said the group were using their influence in countries to cause a “migratory phenomenon”.
The comments came as the Italian government faced criticism on Monday for its response to 30 migrants drowning with 17 brought ashore by the Italian authorities. It was the latest deadly shipwreck in the Mediterranean after a ship, travelling from Libya, capsized.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Crosetto said: “I think it is now safe to say that the exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon departing from African shores is also, to a not insignificant extent, part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division is implementing, using its considerable weight in some African countries.”
The senior member of Giorgia Meloni’s hard-Right Brothers of Italy party added: “Just as the EU, NATO and the West have realised that cyber attacks were part of the global confrontation that the war in Ukraine opened up, they should now understand that the southern European front is also becoming more dangerous every day.”
If Italy did not receive help, there is a “risk of cracking the Atlantic alliance”, he also warned.
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Similarly, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told reporters during a visit to Israel that the number of migrants arriving on the Mediterranean country’s shores is “worrying”.
Massimiliano Romeo, the leader in the Senate for the Lega Nord party, made a more damning assessment, stating that “Russia is creating a migrant bomb”.
Prigozhin has denied the allegation and has instead hit out at Mr Crosetto, taking to his Telegram channel to call him a “mudak”, which translates literally to ‘testicle’ and is used as a swearword in Russian.
He told the Italian minister to deal with his own problems, writing: “We are not aware of what is happening with the migration crisis, we are not dealing with it. We have a lot of our own problems to deal with.”
Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef”, has long been an ally of Putin, having struck several multi-billion dollar deals with the Russian government since the Nineties. Just under a decade ago, he only admitted to founding Wagner Group last year despite it being in existence for almost a decade.
According to UK military intelligence statistics, the group has 50,000 mercenaries in Ukraine where they have been accused of torturing and murdering civilians.
In recent years, the Wagner group has been involved in several wars in both African and Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic.
In the Central African Republic, the Wagner group were invited to guard mines, and the Mali government is using them to fight against Islamic militant groups.