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French fighters in Ukraine rubbish Russian 'dead mercenaries' claims

By AFP

January 27, 2024 07:49 PM


"As far as the Russians are concerned, I've already been dead twice," grinned Franck, who is one of a number of alleged French "mercenaries" in Ukraine that Moscow claimed to have killed in a recent strike.

Without providing evidence, the Russian defence ministry claimed last week's overnight attack on Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine, had "eliminated" about 60 fighters, "most" of them French citizens", and wounded 20 others.

"Luckily they weren't serious deaths because I've come back to life," joked the burly Frenchman, who spoke to AFP from the frontline in Ukraine, where he is fighting in the International Legion.

Several lists -- including one said to reveal the identity of around 30 "dead French mercenaries" -- have been shared massively on social media by the Kremlin's Telegram channels and pro-Kremlin activists.

The names include that of Franck, who Russian media had already declared dead in a 2022 video seen by AFP.

"I lost my Go-pro camera in a trench in the Zaporizhzhia region," he told AFP, his face uncovered but his full name kept secret for security reasons.

"They mixed my pictures in with ones of corpses to say my entire group had died."

Paris has accused Moscow of spreading disinformation about France.

AFP also spoke to two other French nationals on the lists.

All three French army veterans denied being in Kharkiv during the attack and rejected the accusation they were mercenaries.

They said they had been the target of "propaganda" designed to "undermine their credibility" as volunteers fighting alongside the Ukrainian army.

  ChatGPT lists

 Beranger Minaud, who met AFP in person on Thursday in eastern France, said he left Ukraine in September 2023 after being wounded.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's impossible for 50 French fighters to be in the same place and the same time in Ukraine," he said.

"I find it hard to believe there are more than 50 altogether now. And the ones I know are in different units all over the country," he said.

French security sources estimate there are around 100 French volunteers fighting in Ukraine.

Minaud left his job as a delivery driver to do humanitarian work before taking up arms, saying he was motivated "to stop the massacres" of civilians.

The 45-year-old with a greying goatee showed AFP his French passport bearing his full name and his Ukrainian military ID card.

"Those lists are a load of rubbish," said another fighter, who gave his identity as Sly, aged 43.

"There are blokes I know on the lists. They were in Ukraine before but they've been back in France for some time."

Contacted via WhatsApp, Sly said he was fighting "in southern Ukraine".

According to Franck, who got in touch with contacts in Kharkiv from the eastern region of Donbas, where he said he was operating as a sniper, "the bombing that night didn't hit any military buildings".

"It hit civilian infrastructure and 19 civilians were wounded but that's it," he said.

Franck's toll is similar to that reported by Kharkiv authorities.

Some names on the lists are simply made up, according to French diplomatic and military sources.

Certain lists "generated by ChatGPT" included ridiculous fakes like "Air Jordan", one said.

"They start out with verified information on French citizens in Ukraine... and mix it with fake data," the source said.

Xavier Tytelman, chief editor of Air & Cosmos magazine, who has contacts in the International Legion, said he had been in touch with a dozen of the people on the lists.

"They're all alive," he said.

Paris has also denied Russian insinuations that the government helped recruit French nationals to fight in Ukraine.

Moscow's choice of the word "mercenary" is significant.

It implies that France is breaking its own law against its citizens fighting abroad in return for payment -- a crime punishable by five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros ($81,000).

The term is also used by French authorities to condemn the activities of Russian paramilitary goup Wagner, which Paris accuses of war crimes in Africa.

  Same duties, same wages

 When Moscow's forces invaded in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged foreign volunteers to join the International Legion.

"We're all fighting here for different reasons -- some for action and adrenalin, others for humanitarian or political causes," said Sly, who said he was part of a regular Ukrainian army infantry battalion.

"But if we'd come for the money, the word would have got around."

Foreign combatants enlisted by the Ukrainian army are given a military ID card detailing their names, units and the weapons issued to them.

"We have the same rights and duties as Ukrainian soldiers -- except that we can bail out when we want -- and we're paid the same," said Minaud.

That means 20,000 hryvnia (just over $500) a month and a 100,000-hryvnia bonus for every month spent at the front.

"It's a bit like the French Foreign Legion," explained Franck, who said he was fighting alongside combatants "of every nationality on the planet".

He dismissed "Russian propaganda" that they were mercenaries with a shrug.

"I'm totally at ease with what I'm doing here," he said.


AFP


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