Russia's Lavrov visits Sudan on diplomatic push in Africa's Sahel

KHARTOUM (Reuters) -Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met officials in Sudan on Thursday as part of an African tour seeking to expand Moscow's influence at a time when Western nations have sought to isolate it with sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Lavrov arrived in Khartoum late on Wednesday, and the talks aimed to increase economic and diplomatic coordination as well as infrastructure investment, Sudan's foreign ministry said.

The veteran Russian foreign minister's tour has also included Iraq, Mauritania and Mali, following a visit last week to South Africa.

"We discussed the need to coordinate within international institutions, reform the (U.N.) Security Council, and build a multipolar world," Lavrov told a news conference.

Sudan was cut off from billions of dollars in international financing after military leaders ousted a Western-backed transitional government in 2021. At the same time as receiving Lavrov, Khartoum was this week hosting envoys from the United States, Britain, France and other countries that are supporting talks to form a new democratic civilian government in Sudan.

"Western delegations are following our steps and trying to hinder our efforts towards having a multipolar world," Lavrov said.

Western countries are concerned about Russia's widening sway in Africa's Sahel and its border regions. Sudan's ruling military council has previously considered allowing Russia to open a naval base on the Red Sea coast, a strategic region where Gulf countries and Turkey also vie for influence.

Reuters could not immediately establish whether the base was on Lavrov's agenda during his Khartoum visit.

Lavrov acknowledged the existence of Russian mining companies operating in Sudan and said that agreement had been reached previously on a naval base but was awaiting Sudanese legislation to implement it. Such a deal had been reached under President Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in a 2019 uprising.

Western diplomats and official sources have said that Russia's Wagner Group private military contractor has worked in Sudan to expand gold mining, among other activities.

Sudan's foreign ministry has previously denied the presence of Wagner, which is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lavrov acknowledged the presence of Wagner contractors in neighbouring Central African Republic and praised an announcement by Sudan's deputy ruling council head General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo that the border between the countries had been closed, saying it would stop the spread of militants.

Dagalo, head of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and better known as Hemedti, visited Russia the day before its Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine and expressed openness to hosting a Russian base.

While Bashir courted Russian support, civilian Sudanese parties that shared power with the army after his overthrow until the coup 15 months ago formed closer ties with the West.

In Khartoum, Lavrov met his counterpart Ali al-Sadeq as well as the head of Sudan's ruling council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Hemedti.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, writing by Nafisa Eltahir; editing by Aidan Lewis, Frank Jack Daniel and Mark Heinrich)