France responded on Monday to the Malian prime minister’s “indecent” and “unacceptable” claims that it is abandoning the war-torn country by withdrawing troops from the troubled Sahel region.
“There is no French withdrawal,” Defense Minister Florence Parly told a conference in Paris, two days after Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga accused Paris of walking away from the fight against jihadist insurgents in West Africa.
“When you have thousands of soldiers on the ground[…] and deploying brand-new tanks in the Sahel is hardly the attitude of a country seeking a way out, ”Parly said, noting that Maïga’s“ indecent ”allegations arose in the aftermath of the death of a French soldier in the region – the 52nd death since the deployment of French forces in 2013.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Saturday, Maïgas said he regretted France’s “unilateral announcement” that it would cut troop numbers in the Sahel.
Responding to criticism, a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry said France’s redeployment to Mali followed “consultations with Sahelian and Malian authorities”.
“The transformation of our military presence in the Sahel is neither a departure from Mali, nor a unilateral decision,” Anne-Claire Legendre said Monday during a press briefing from the ministry.
“And it is wrong to say otherwise,” she added.
In June, Paris began to reorganize its forces deployed in the Sahel as part of “Operation Barkhane”, notably by withdrawing from its northernmost bases in Mali at Kidal, Timbuktu and Tessalit.
The total number in the region is expected to rise from 5,000 today to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2023.
The new leader of the Barkhane force in the region, General Laurent Michon, said the withdrawal of the three bases in northern Mali had been worked out 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 Niamey,” Michon told reporters in Nouakchott.
“France remains committed alongside Mali and the other G5 Sahel states, at their request, in the fight against terrorism which remains an absolute priority,” added Legendre, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Russian mercenary talks
In his speech to the UN on Saturday, Maïga accused the French decision of justifying that his government “is looking for other partners”, an apparent reference to Bamako having asked private Russian companies to strengthen security in this country torn by the conflict.
France has warned Mali that hiring fighters from a Russian private security company will isolate the country internationally.
>> Information on the agreement of Russian mercenaries in Mali raises the French alarm
The army-dominated Malian government in Bamako is said to be about to hire 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries from Russia.
“The interventions in other countries of mercenaries from the private military company Wagner have resulted in serious violations of human rights, exploitation of natural resources and people and a deterioration of the security situation, especially in Central Africa,” added spokesperson.
The UN, which has 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, is also concerned about the possible involvement of Wagner’s fighters.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)