US diplomat warns Russian group not to interfere in Mali

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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday warned a shadow Russian company with ties to the Kremlin not to interfere in efforts to restore democracy to the western nation. African from Mali.

As he wrapped up a weeklong tour of three crisis-ridden Africa across the continent, Blinken said it would be “unhappy” if the Wagner group became active in Mali, where there are plans. supported by the international community to have a democratically elected government in place by April.

Mali “remains a fulcrum for the future stability of the Sahel and we are deeply concerned by this stability and by the extremism and terrorism which are spreading tentacles in the region,” Blinken said at a press conference with the minister. Senegalese Foreign Minister, Aissata Tall Sall. The Sahel region of West Africa is the vast area south of the Sahara Desert where extremist groups are fighting for control.

“It would be particularly unfortunate if outside actors would commit to making things even more difficult and complicated,” he said. Blinken said he was referring in particular to the Wagner Group, which has deployed mercenaries to Syria, the Central African Republic and Libya, sparking protests from the West and others.

The Wagner group, owned by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been accused by Western governments and UN experts of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya.

France and Germany have opposed the presence of Wagner’s mercenaries in Mali, and the European Union said last week it would consider sanctions against anyone interfering in Mali’s democratic transition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the company had a “legitimate” right to be in Mali because it had been invited by the transitional government, and insisted that the Russian government did not is not involved.

Blinken, who also lobbied in Africa for an end to the crises in Ethiopia and Sudan, said the United States was ready to restore aid to Mali which had been suspended after a military coup.

“It is ultimately about the Malian people and their aspirations for peace, their aspirations for development and respect for human rights,” he said. elected government took office.

Mali has been struggling to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels have been ousted from power in towns in northern Mali with the help of a French-led military operation, but have regrouped in the desert and began to launch attacks against the Malian army and its allies. .

In June, Colonel Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Mali faces growing international isolation in the face of the junta’s seizure of power. Elections are due in February, but the EU fears they will be delayed.

In Dakar, Blinken was pushing infrastructure projects built in the United States, including an initiative to produce COVID-19 vaccines in Senegal, a first for Africa. He also promoted sustainable development, women’s empowerment and other human rights initiatives to support faltering democracies.

In meetings with female entrepreneurs and executives of multinational companies based in the United States, Blinken touted the benefits of strengthening the role of women in economies and purchasing American products. In a coup against China, with which the United States competes for lucrative business, he noted that America invests “without imposing on the country a debt that it cannot manage.”

“The effects will be felt inside Senegal, improving infrastructure, creating jobs and strengthening public safety and climate resilience,” he said as he witnessed the signing of four road agreements. , traffic management and others between Senegal and US companies valued at around $ 1. billion.

The investment, he said, shows “our common values ​​of democracy, transparency and the rule of law as well as innovation”.

In less than two weeks, Senegal will host a major China-Africa trade and investment forum, underscoring Beijing’s interest in increasing the scope of its influence on the continent. The American-Chinese competition in Africa was a major underlying theme of Blinken’s trip, although he tried to play it down.

“Our objective is not to make our partners choose, it is to give them choices,” he said. “And when people have choices, they usually make the right one.”

Tall Sall, the foreign minister who will play a major role in the forum, thanked Blinken for his comments.

“We have a diplomacy of sovereignty from which we exclude no one,” she said. “There isn’t just one choice. We have many choices.”

As he does in France and other French-speaking countries, Blinken spoke a lot in French during his public appearances, notably with the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, and during an event at the Institut Pasteur in Dakar, who hopes to start producing COVID-19 vaccines with Americans helping out next year.

In his meetings, Blinken addressed security issues, in particular the rise of jihadist violence across the Sahel and the increase in authoritarianism which many say fuels extremism.

Senegal is a key partner in the fight against extremism and last year hosted the US military’s annual counterterrorism exercise, Flintlock.

One of the areas where Sall could seek US assistance is strengthening security measures along the country’s borders with Mali and Mauritania, where several counterterrorism operations have taken place in recent years.

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Associated Press writer Babacar Dione contributed to this report.

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