WASHINGTON - Reports that Russia is connected to this week's coup in Burkina Faso have made their way to the Pentagon, though U.S. defense officials decline to say whether the allegations have merit.
Burkinabe soldiers went on national television late Monday, announcing they had deposed President Roch Kabore due to 'the continuous deterioration of the security situation which threatens the very foundations of our nation.'
A day later, Alexander Ivanov, the official representative of Russian military trainers in the Central African Republic, issued a statement offering training to the Burkinabe military. The CAR has been employing mercenaries with Russia's Wagner Group to help with security since 2017.
'The Department of Defense is aware of the allegations that the Russian-backed Wagner Group may have been a force behind the military takeover in Burkina Faso,' Cindi King, a Defense Department spokesperson, told VOA Thursday.
FILE - An army soldier asks people to disperse as they gather outside Guillaume Ouedraogo army camp to show their support for the military after Burkina Faso President Roch Kabore was detained at a military camp in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Jan. 24, 2022
But the Pentagon stopped short of saying whether the allegations are true.
'We cannot speak to these reports or any potential factors that led to this event,' King said of Monday's coup.
'We support the State Department's call for the Burkinabe armed forces to respect Burkina Faso's constitution and civilian leadership,' she said. 'We encourage the restoration of safety and security for the Burkinabe people and for legitimate, constitutional rule in Burkina Faso.'
FILE - Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, spokesman for the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, announces that the army has taken control of the country in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Jan. 24, 2022.
Questions emailed to the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Burkinabe Embassy in Washington seeking comment have not been answered.
The Daily Beast first reported the allegations that Wagner was tied to the coup in Burkina Faso earlier this week, citing sources close to the deposed president as saying his final acts in office were to oppose requests by the Burkinabe military to hire Wagner.
'The president quickly rejected the idea,' one official told The Daily Beast. 'Kabore didn't want to run into any problems with the West for aligning with Russia.'
U.S. military and intelligence officials have been increasingly wary of the presence of mercenaries with Russia's Wagner Group in Africa, which was initially limited to the CAR and Libya.
The head of U.S. Africa Command confirmed to VOA last week allegations by France and other European nations that Wagner personnel are now in Mali, brought in by that country's military junta despite multiple pleas and warnings from the U.S. and others.
'Wagner [Group] is in Mali. They are there, we think, numbering several hundred now,' said General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). 'Russian air force airplanes are delivering them.'
Whether Wagner mercenaries are destined for Burkina Faso, U.S. officials are wary.
'We've been watching this for years,' said Major General Andrew Rohling, the commander of the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, during an online seminar late Wednesday.
'It is a way that Russia of course is able to influence [a] military without actually putting a Russian flag on it,' he said, calling the situation in Burkina Faso 'a little bit of an unknown right now.'
As in Mali, though, where demonstrators have repeatedly voiced support for Russian assistance, there seems to be at least some support among Burkinabes for turning to Moscow.
Speakers at a rally of about 1,000 people earlier this week in Ouagadougou, the capital, repeatedly called for Russian military intervention.
FILE - People gather in support of a coup that ousted President Roch Kabore, dissolved government, suspended the constitution and closed borders in Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, Jan. 25, 2022.
U.S. forces have been supporting Burkinabe forces through several initiatives over the past several years as the country has battled extremists aligned both with al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror group.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon said it was reviewing the situation in Burkina Faso and the impact on relations with the U.S. military going forward.
Separately, U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso Sandra Clark told VOA that should the Burkinabe military install its own leader, Washington could cut support to the country.
VOA's Henry Wilkins contributed to this report.