Mali has called on Russian private companies to increase security, Russia’s foreign minister confirmed on Saturday, as the Malian leader accused France of leaving the conflict-ravaged country in preparing for a large troop reduction.
European countries have warned the Malian government on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week against hiring paramilitaries from the controversial Wagner group.
But with Paris on the verge of reducing its military presence in Mali, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the Malian government was turning to “Russian private companies.”
“This is an activity that has been carried out in a legitimate way,” he said during a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York.
“We have nothing to do with it,” he added, saying that the Malian government estimated that “its own capabilities would be insufficient in the absence of external support” and initiated discussions.
The Bamako government, dominated by the Malian army, is reportedly close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries.
France warned Mali that hiring fighters from the Russian private security firm would isolate the country internationally.
But Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga accused France of leaving his country with the “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops when he addressed the UN General Assembly.
He said his government was justified in “seeking other partners” to boost security and criticized the “lack of consultation” from the French.
The Wagner group considers itself close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western countries accuse him of acting on behalf of Moscow.
Russian paramilitaries, private security instructors and corporations have become increasingly influential in Africa in recent years, particularly in the conflict-ravaged Central African Republic, where the United Nations has accused Wagner contractors of abuses.
Moscow admits to having sent “instructors” to the Central African Republic, but says they are not actively participating in the fight. Russia insists there are no paramilitaries in Libya, despite claims to the contrary by the West.
The UN, which has some 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, has also raised concerns about the possible involvement of Wagner’s fighters.
The EU, which trains Malian troops through its EUTM Mali mission, made up of 700 soldiers from 25 European countries, has warned that Wagner’s involvement would “seriously” affect its relations with Bamako.
“To say, ‘I was there first, get out,’ is an insult, first of all to the Bamako government that invited foreign partners,” Lavrov insisted.
France, which has lost 52 soldiers in the Sahel since its fighting began in January 2013, has decided to reorganize its military presence around a stricter unit focused on targeted attacks against jihadist leaders and on supporting local armies.
Soldiers are slated to leave some bases by the end of the year and French troops in the Sahel should drop from around 5,000 today to 2,500 or 3,000 by 2023.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly reaffirmed on Monday that France is not leaving Mali and remains “determined” to continue the fight against terrorism alongside Malian forces.
Germany, which also has troops in the country, warned Bamako that it will reconsider its deployment if the government reaches a deal with Wagner.
Already fighting a jihadist insurgency, Mali plunged into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions, the military appointed an interim civilian government tasked with bringing the country back to a democratic government.
But Colonel Assimi Goita, the military leader, overthrew the leaders of that interim government in May, in a second coup, and was later declared interim president, prompting international condemnation.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced his troop reduction in July after the second coup.
After his press conference, Lavrov harshly criticized Paris and Berlin during his speech at the annual General Assembly.
He accused them of wanting to impose their vision of the world on the rest of the planet without taking into account different opinions.