The army spokesman said Russian soldiers were in the northern city to train Malian troops.
The Malian army spokesman said Russian soldiers had deployed to the northern city of Timbuktu to train Malian forces at a base liberated by French troops last month in a context persistent insecurity in a country where large swathes of land are beyond government control.
The Malian government said late last year that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided few details on the deployment, including the number of soldiers involved or the precise mission of Russian troops.
On December 23, a group of Western countries led by the former colonial power France, which in 2013 intervened militarily to help repel the advance of armed groups that threatened to seize the whole of Mali, strongly criticized what they called a deployment of Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner Group.
The Malian government denied, saying Russian troops are in the country under a bilateral deal.
“We had new acquisitions of aircraft and equipment from them [the Russians]Malian army spokesperson told Reuters on Thursday.
He did not say how many Russians had been sent to Timbuktu.
Residents told Reuters that Russian men in uniform were seen driving in the city, but could not tell how many there were.
The arrival of Russian forces in Mali follows deployments to several other African hotspots, part of what analysts say is an attempt by Moscow to regain influence on the continent after a long absence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mali has been embroiled in a conflict that started as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012, but has evolved into a host of armed groups fighting for control in the central and northern regions.
The fighting has spread to neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, as the deteriorating security situation in the region has triggered an acute humanitarian crisis.
The withdrawal of French troops from Timbuktu, a town they helped recapture from al-Qaeda fighters in 2013, is part of a significant withdrawal of a previously 5,000-strong task force in the Sahel region in west Africa. The French government has said it will refocus its military efforts on neutralizing rebel operations, and strengthening and training local armies.
The move came amid growing political instability in Mali, where Colonel Assimi Goita carried out two coups d’état in less than a year before being sworn in as the country’s interim president. The military-dominated government initially pledged to hold elections by the end of February 2022, but has now proposed a transition period of between six months and five years.
Reports of Wagner’s deployment in recent months have further strained the already strained ties between the French government and the coup plotters. The growing tensions also came at a time when anti-French sentiment has become very popular among Malians who accuse Paris of not containing the escalation of violence and of pursuing a hidden agenda.
The French army has already closed its bases further north in Kidal and Tessalit but maintains its presence in Gao near an unstable border region where operations have been concentrated in recent years.