France and more than a dozen of Western allies have condemned what they said was the deployment of Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner Group in conflict-hit Mali, accusing Moscow of providing material backing for the fighters.
In a joint statement on Thursday, the 15 countries – including Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom – said they “firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory”.
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It was one of the first official acknowledgements by Western capitals that the deployment of fighters has begun in Mali after months of warnings to the government in Bamako. But the statement did not say that the presence of the shadowy private military company in Mali would result in a pullout 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 an aggravation of the human rights situation in Mali [and] threaten the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali,” the countries said.
They added 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 Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behaviour in the region.”
The Russian government denies any links with Wagner, but the group has reportedly been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. In late September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Mali had approached private Russian companies to boost security in the country, but added that the Kremlin was not involved.
Mali’s government has not commented on the latest developments.
“We are seeing 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,” a French government source, who asked not to be named, told AFP news agency.
The source also said there had been frequent visits by Wagner executives to Bamako and the activities by Russian geologists known for their association with Wagner.
French troops’ drawdown
The other countries to have co-signed Thursday’s statement were Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, 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 mercenaries, saying a deal would divert needed funds and further destabilise the country.
Experts have said a deal between Mali’s military-led government and the private security firm to hire mercenaries would increase Moscow’s influence while undermining French-led operations against armed groups operating in the country and the wider Sahel region.
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013, when they intervened to force out armed fighters from power in the country’s north. That operation was later extended to other countries in an effort to stabilise the broader Sahel region that includes Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Facing a fight with seemingly no end in sight, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in July plans to reduce the 5,100 French troops under its Barkhane mission by about half and close down French bases in northern Mali in a bid to initiate a wider European effort.
The drawdown came as anti-French sentiment has become widely popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the ever-growing violence and pursuing a hidden agenda in the country.
Malian officials, meanwhile, have accused France of abandoning their country with its “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops.
‘Not give up’
The relations between the two countries have significantly deteriorated following two military coups since August 2020, as well as after France decided 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 in August 2020 detained civilian politicians and took over 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, there are fears a commitment to hold elections in February is slipping.
The French government source said the deployment of the Wagner troops was a “symptom” of the attitude of the current authorities towards transition and showed that, rather than paving the way for civilian rule, they wanted to “stay in place”.
The Wagner Group has caused controversy through its involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. European Union ministers have agreed to draw up more sanctions against Wagner.
France has previously said any deployment of Wagner militia would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.
The statement from the 15 powers on Thursday indicated they planned to remain engaged in Mali, saying “we will not give up our efforts to address the needs of the Malian population”.
“We consider the decision of those responsible in Mali to bring mercenaries into the country to be wrong and expressly regret it,” German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said in a tweet.