A cargo plane has delivered four helicopters, weapons and ammunition from Russia to Mali, according to the military-led authorities in the West African country.
Interim Defence Minister Sadio Camara said late on Thursday Mali had acquired the aircraft in a contract agreed in December 2020 to support its armed forces in their battle – alongside French, European and United Nations troops – with fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
“Mali bought these helicopters from the Russia Federation, a friendly country with which Mali has always maintained a very fruitful partnership,” he told local media on the tarmac after the plane landed in the capital, Bamako.
He added that the weapons and ammunition were gifts from Russia.
The delivery comes at a moment of tense relations between Mali and its key military partner France over reports Bamako could recruit mercenaries from a shadowy Russian military group as Paris reshapes its military mission in the region.
Diplomatic and security sources have told news agencies Mali’s military-dominated government is close to recruiting the controversial Wagner Group. France has launched a diplomatic drive to thwart it, saying such an arrangement is incompatible with a continued French presence.
There are talks of a possible deal between Mali’s gov't and Russian private security firm Wagner, reflecting an ongoing political shift in the country.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 1, 2021
France, which has deployed more than 5,000 soldiers in the Sahel region under its Barkhane mission but has pledged a major troop drawdown, has warned Mali that hiring Wagner fighters would isolate the country internationally.
The relations between the two countries have sharply deteriorated following two military coups in Bamako since August 2020, as well as after France’s decision earlier this year to redesign its military operations in the region.
In May, the Malian colonels who had agreed to share power with civilians after overthrowing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita detained civilian politicians and took over the control of the country again.
Paris strongly denounced the latest power grab and pushed the military rulers to ensure a modicum of transition. Even though the colonels have pledged to stick to the 18-month timetable for the civilian transition, with fewer than six months to go before promised elections, doubts and mistrust are deepening.
Germany, which also has troops in Mali, also says it will reconsider its deployment should the Malian government strike a deal with Wagner.
Last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Mali approached private Russian companies to boost security in the conflict-torn country, adding that the Kremlin was not involved.
Lavrov’s comments came after European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the bloc’s ties with Mali could be seriously affected if it allows Wagner contractors to operate in the country.
On Saturday, Mali’s interim Prime Minister Choguel Maiga accused France of abandoning his country in a speech at the United Nations.
Responding to this charge for the first time, President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday questioned the legitimacy of the Malian authorities overseeing a transition to elections after two coups in just over a year.
“What the Malian prime minister said is unacceptable. It’s a shame. And that dishonours what isn’t even a government,” he told Radio France International.