France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has accused Russian private military contractor Wagner Group of plundering Mali’s resources amid heightened tensions between Paris and the country’s military government in recent weeks, including over the fate of European forces deployed in the region to fight armed groups.
The US army last week estimated hundreds of Wagner personnel were in the Sahel state, but the country’s ruling army has denied this.
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Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since Mali’s army led by Colonel Assimi Goita staged a coup in August 2020.
Former colonial power France has thousands of troops deployed in the Sahel state, which has been struggling to contain a rebellion that first emerged in 2012.
The Wagner mercenaries are “former Russian soldiers, armed by Russia and accompanied by Russian logistics”, Le Drian said.
“They are already at the moment helping themselves to the country’s resources in exchange for protecting the junta. They are despoiling Mali,” he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in remarks published on Sunday.
The United Nations, France and local groups say the Wagner Group is also present in the Central African Republic.
“Wagner uses the weakness of certain states to implant itself… to reinforce Russia’s influence in Africa,” Le Drian added, though he said it did not seek to replace the Europeans in the region.
The French foreign minister did not say what would happen to a European force deployed in the area to fight armed groups after Mali’s rulers succeeded in expelling a contingent of Danish troops this week.
“We are speaking to our partners to see what kind of response” is needed, Le Drian said.
“Our fight against terrorism must continue – but probably under different conditions,” he added.
Asked if this meant a withdrawal from Mali, he answered: “I did not say that.”
On Friday, Malian foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop said the country’s military-dominated government was “ruling nothing out” regarding its relations with France.