Thousands of anti-French demonstrators have poured into the street of the Malian capital, Bamako, to cheer at the expulsion of the French ambassador.
The celebrations on Friday, where people waved Russian flags and burned cardboard cut-outs of French President Emmanuel Macron, came as tensions between the West African country and its former colonial power have been steadily soaring.
“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of Malians today who say ‘No’ to France. So, what the European Union and France need to do is respect the Malian authorities,” Moulaye Keita, member of the country’s National Transition Council, told reporters.
“They need to understand that the authorities in charge today are the only ones who can speak for our country,” Keita added.
The standoff comes as Western powers say Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner group have been deployed in Mali, a country at the heart of a long-running conflict in the Sahel region, where thousands of French troops are deployed to fight armed groups.
Relations between the two countries have been further deteriorating after the military, which seized power in August 2020, and then again in May, retracted the promise to hold elections in February and proposed holding power until 2025.
The standoff escalated last week when the French diplomat was given 72 hours to leave the country. The EU snapped back on Friday imposing sanctions on five senior members of the country’s transitional government, including on interim Prime Minister Choguel Maiga.
“The EU sanctions are ratcheting up the pressure, but simply follow what the Africans have done themselves,” Terence McCulley, former US ambassador to Mali, told Al Jazeera. “I think dialogue is still an option and still the preferred option with both ECOWAS and the international community,” he said.
But Adama Ben Diarra, a sanctioned member of the transitional government, described the restricting measures as an honour, saying that expelling the French ambassador is only the latest step in getting rid of Paris’s influence.
“It is an important step in the fight, but the victory must go all the way,” Diarra said in a speech during the rally on Friday. “The next step must be the departure of French forces and then we will start the move towards economic and monetary sovereignty,” he added.
Addressing the deployment of Russian mercenaries to Mali, Diarra said: “For the security of my people, I am ready to make a pact with Satan to drive out France and its terrorist allies.”
Mali continues to face challenges in trying to contain an armed rebellion that erupted in 2012.
Rebels were forced from power in northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began attacking the Malian army and its allies.
Stability in the West African nation has worsened recently with attacks on civilians and United Nations peacekeepers.
The EU has also been training the Malian armed forces and plans to continue to do so despite the severe instability and political upheaval