France and more than a dozen Western allies have condemned what they called a deployment of Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner group in conflict-affected Mali, accusing Moscow of providing material support to fighters .
In a joint statement Thursday, the 15 countries – including Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom – said they “strongly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory.”
It was one of the first official recognitions by Western capitals that the deployment of combatants had begun in Mali after months of warnings to the government in Bamako. But the statement does not say that the presence of the shadow private military company in Mali would lead to a withdrawal of foreign forces deployed in the fight against armed groups in the region.
“This deployment can only further deteriorate the security situation in West Africa, lead to a worsening of the human rights situation in Mali. [and] threaten the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali, ”the countries said.
They added that they “deeply regret” the choice of the Malian authorities to use “already scarce public funds” to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the country’s armed forces.
In a message to Moscow, the statement added: “We are aware of the involvement of the government of the Russian Federation in providing material support for the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to return to behavior. responsible and constructive in the region. . “
The Russian government denies any connection to Wagner, but the group has reportedly been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. At the end of September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Mali had approached Russian private companies to bolster security in the country, but added that the Kremlin was not involved.
The Malian government has not commented on the latest developments.
“We are witnessing repeated air rotations with military transport planes belonging to the Russian army and installations at Bamako airport to allow the arrival of a significant number of mercenaries,” told the news agency. AFP press a French government source, who requested anonymity.
The source also said there had been frequent visits from Wagner’s cadres to Bamako and the activities of Russian geologists known for their association with Wagner.
The withdrawal of French troops
The other countries to co-signed Thursday’s statement were Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania and Sweden.
The United States was not a signatory, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week warned Mali not to accept Wagner’s mercenaries, saying a deal would divert needed funds and further destabilize the country.
Experts said an agreement between the Malian army-led government and the private security company to hire mercenaries would increase Moscow’s influence while undermining French-led operations against armed groups operating in the country. and in the Sahel region at large.
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013, when they intervened to oust armed fighters from power in the north of the country. This operation was then extended to other countries with the aim of stabilizing the wider Sahel region which includes Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Faced with a seemingly endless fight, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in July his intention to halve around 5,100 French troops on his Barkhane mission and to close French bases in northern Mali with the aim of launching a broader European effort.
The pullout came as anti-French sentiment has become very popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the ever-increasing violence and of pursuing a hidden agenda in the country.
Malian officials, meanwhile, accused France of abandoning their country with its “unilateral” decision to withdraw its troops.
‘Do not abandon’
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated considerably following two military coups since August 2020, as well as after France decided to rethink its military operations in the region.
In May, Malian colonels who agreed to share power with civilians after overthrowing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020 arrested civilian politicians and regained control of the country.
Paris strongly denounced the latest takeover and urged the military leaders to ensure a minimum of transition. Even though the colonels have pledged to meet the 18-month calendar for the civilian transition, there are fears that the commitment to hold elections in February may collapse.
The French government source said Wagner’s deployment of troops was a “symptom” of the current authorities’ attitude towards the transition and showed that, rather than paving the way for civilian rule, they wanted to “stay in. square”.
The Wagner group has sparked controversy through its involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. European Union ministers agreed to work out more sanctions against Wagner.
France has previously said any deployment of Wagner militias would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.
The statement from the 15 powers said on Thursday that they planned to remain engaged in Mali, saying that “we will not give up our efforts to meet the needs of the Malian people”.
“We consider that the decision of those responsible in Mali to bring mercenaries into the country is wrong and expressly regret it,” German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said in a tweet.