Mali has asked Russian private companies to boost security in the conflict-torn country, Moscow confirmed as the Malian leader accused France of abandoning Bamako by preparing a large troop drawdown.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday private Russian military contractors have a “legitimate” right to be in Mali because they were invited by the country’s transitional government – but he insisted that the Russian government was not involved.
Meanwhile, in his address to the UN General Assembly, Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga accused France of abandoning his country with its “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops.
With France preparing to reduce its military presence in the Sahel region, the Malian government estimated that “its own capacities would be insufficient in the absence of external support” and initiated the discussions, Lavrov told reporters on the sidelines of the UNGA.
“This is an activity which has been carried out on a legitimate basis,” he said. “We have nothing to do with that.”
Lavrov’s comments came after European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that the bloc’s ties with Mali could be seriously affected if it allows Russian private military contractors from the controversial Wagner Group to operate in the country.
According to reports, Mali’s military-dominated government in Bamako is close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries to help it in the fight against armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
France, which deployed more than 5,000 soldiers in the Sahel region under its Barkhane mission but has pledged a major troop drawdown, has warned Mali that hiring Wagner fighters would isolate the country internationally.
Germany, which also has troops in Mali, also says it will reconsider its deployment should the Malian government strike a deal with Wagner.
Russian paramilitaries, private security instructors and companies have grown increasingly influential in parts of Africa in recent years, particularly in the conflict-ridden Central African Republic (CAR), where the UN has accused Wagner contractors of committing abuses.
Russia admits having deployed “instructors” to CAR but says they are not active in fighting. It also insists there are no Russian paramilitaries in Libya, despite Western claims to the contrary.
The French defence ministry declined to comment on Lavrov’s comments.
Addressing the UNGA, Maiga said his government was justified to seek other partners to help “fill the gap which will certainly result from the withdrawal of Barkhane in the north of the country”.
“The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane puts Mali before a fait accompli – abandoning us, mid-flight to a certain extent – and it leads us to explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously, or with other partners,” he said.
Already battling armed groups in the country’s north and centre, Mali slid into political turmoil last year when its military seized power from President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a coup.
Under the threat of sanctions, the military then appointed an interim civilian government tasked with steering the country back to democratic rule.
But the powerful Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew the leaders of that interim government in May this year – in a second coup – and was later declared interim president himself, drawing international condemnation.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced his troop reductions in July in the aftermath of the second coup.
Soldiers are due to leave some bases by the end of the year and French troops in the Sahel could fall from about 5,000 currently to 2,500 or 3,000 by 2023.
The UN, which has some 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, has also expressed concern about the possible involvement of Wagner fighters.
Following his press conference, Lavrov sharply criticised Paris and Berlin during his address to the annual General Assembly, accusing them of wanting to impose their vision of the world on the rest of the planet without considering different opinions.