By John Ikani
Diplomatic and security sources have disclosed that Mali’s Government is close to perfecting a deal with a private Russian military contractor, Wagner Group,
The sources said Wagner Group would supply mercenaries to train Mali’s military and protect senior officials, based on the deal being negotiated.
In their reactions, France and other foreign powers have expressed alarm at the moves being made by Bamako to approach the Russians for assistance.
French Defence Minister, Florence Parly warned such a move would be incompatible with France military presence in Mali, where Malian, French and European forces, alongside UN peacekeepers, have been battling insurgents linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Paris is worried the arrival of any Russian contractors would undermine its counter-terrorism operation in West Africa’s Sahel region as it scales down a 5,000-strong mission and reshapes it with more European allies,m.
Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since a coup in August 2020 removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron has announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the region.
A deal with Russia could push relations between France and Mali to breaking point, and underscore growing Russia influence in region.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Malian Defence Ministry did not deny the discussions, which were first reported by the Reuters news agency on Monday.
“Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country,” the spokesperson told AFP. “We haven’t signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone,” he added.
Similarly, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga said the West African country has the right to seek military support from Russian mercenaries or whoever it wants.
“If partners have decided to leave certain areas, if they decide to leave tomorrow – what do we do?,” Maiga said in a briefing posted online on Friday by Mali’s Le Jalon news site.
“Should we not have a plan B?”
“There are zones that are abandoned that need to be occupied today so they’re not left empty. There are not enough troops,” he said, without mentioning specifics about what plans Mali might have or which other parties might be involved.
“We can’t be stopped from sending trained people to a given country,” the Prime Minister added.
The French army has started to redeploy from bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali and talks are underway to hand the bases to Malian or UN forces, French army sources said.
Its plan to restructure operations in the Sahel includes reducing the number of troops to between 2,500 to 3,000, moving more assets to Niger, completing redeployment by January and deploying more European special forces.