France responded on Monday to “indecent” and “unacceptable” claims by Mali’s prime minister that it is leaving the war-torn country by withdrawing troops from the restless Sahel region.
“There is no French withdrawal,” Defense Minister Florence Parly said at a conference in Paris, two days after Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga accused Paris of withdrawing from the fight against jihadist insurgents in West Africa.
“When you have thousands of troops on the ground […] and deploying new tanks in the Sahel, that is not the attitude of a country that is looking for a way out, “Parly said, noting that Maïga’s” indecent “accusations came a day after a French soldier was killed in the region, the 52nd death since the deployment of French forces in 2013.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Saturday, Maïga said she regretted France’s “unilateral announcement” that it would reduce the number of troops in the Sahel.
In response to the criticism, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said that France’s redeployment in Mali followed “consultations with the Sahel and Mali authorities.”
“The transformation of our military presence in the Sahel is not a departure from Mali or a unilateral decision,” Anne-Claire Legendre said during a ministerial briefing on Monday.
“And it is false to claim otherwise,” he added.
In June, Paris began to reorganize its forces deployed in the Sahel in the framework of “Operation Barkhane”, including withdrawing its northernmost bases in Mali at Kidal, Timbuktu and Tessalit.
The total number in the region will drop from 5,000 today to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2023.
The new head of Barkhane’s force in the area, General Laurent Michon, said the withdrawal of the three bases in northern Mali had been resolved over the past 18 months to two years.
“It was planned with the heads of state of the G5 zone” – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – “in Bamako and in Niamey,” Michon told reporters in Nouakchott.
“France remains committed alongside Mali and other G5 Sahel states, at their request, in the fight against terrorism, which remains a top priority,” added Legendre, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Russia mercenary talks
In his speech to the UN on Saturday, Maïga denounced that the French measure justified his government “looking for other partners”, an apparent reference to Bamako having asked Russian private companies to strengthen security in the country devastated by the conflict.
France warned Mali that hiring fighters from a Russian private security company would isolate the country internationally.
>> Reports on the Russian mercenary deal in Mali provoke French alarm
The Bamako government, dominated by the Malian army, is reportedly close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries from Russia.
“Interventions in other countries by mercenaries from the private military company Wagner have led to serious human rights violations, exploitation of natural resources and people and a deterioration of the security situation, especially in central Africa,” the spokeswoman added.
The United Nations, which has 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, has also raised concerns about the possible involvement of Wagner’s fighters.