German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned European troops would not cooperate with Mali’s military while it maintained links to Russia during a visit to the conflict-riven Sahel state.
At a news conference in the capital Bamako, Baerbock said on Wednesday that she feared “massive war crimes” were being committed against Malian civilians, which she suggested followed a pattern used by Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia has supplied what are officially described as military instructors to Mali.
But the United States, France, and others say the instructors are operatives from the Russian private-security firm Wagner.
The shadowy organisation has long been suspected to be the Kremlin’s paramilitary arm.
The alleged presence of Wagner operatives, as well as delayed elections, has driven a wedge between the country’s army-dominated government and Western countries.
On Monday, the European Union decided to halt its military training mission in Mali, citing insufficient guarantees from Mali over Wagner.
“We cannot continue the cooperation without demarcation from the Russian forces,” Baerbock said.
Some 300 German soldiers participate in the EU training mission in Mali.
However, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop suggested Baerbock was unfairly comparing events in Mali and Ukraine.
“We must not confuse things,” he said, adding Mali was not involved in the war in Ukraine.
Diop added that Mali’s foreign partners should respect the country’s choices. “Mali has a state-to-state relationship with Russia,” he said.
An impoverished nation of 21 million people, Mali has over the past decade been wracked by violence. Swathes of the country are in thrall to myriad rebel groups and fighters.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes.
Mali’s under-equipped army has also often been accused of committing abuses during the conflict.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report alleging that Malian troops accompanied by white, non-French-speaking foreign fighters killed about 300 civilians in Moura.
The army-dominated government regularly defends the rights record of the military, however. It has also repeatedly denied hiring Wagner operatives.
Mali’s military government also sparked international anger after reneging on a promise to stage elections in February this year.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has imposed sanctions on Mali, including a trade embargo, over the delayed return to civilian rule.