Russian military advisers arrive in Mali after reduction of French troops

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Russian military advisers have arrived in Mali in recent weeks, Malian army officials said on Friday, amid tensions with Western powers over the alleged involvement of Russian mercenaries in the country.

A Malian army officer, who requested anonymity, said about 400 Russian military personnel could operate in Sahel state, which has been struggling to quell a decade-long Islamist insurgency.

Another officer, who also declined to be named, said Russian advisers were present in “several parts of Mali”.

The Russian presence will fuel suspicions that the military-dominated Malian government has hired mercenaries from the controversial Russian group Wagner.

At the end of December, 15 Western countries condemned the alleged deployment of Wagner fighters in Mali and accused Moscow, in a statement, of providing them with material support.

But the Malian government denied that mercenaries had deployed in the country, adding that “Russian trainers” were on the ground to strengthen the operational capacity of the security forces.

Mali is the epicenter of a jihadist insurgency that began in the north of the country in 2012 and spread three years later to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

France intervened in 2013 and now has around 5,000 troops in the region, but plans to reduce that number to 2,500-3,000 by 2023.

The French army recently handed over three military bases in northern Mali to state forces as part of the withdrawal, including more recently in the desert city of Timbuktu.

Russian advisers have since arrived in Timbuktu since the French left on December 14, according to one of the Malian army officers.

Paris has previously said any deployment of Wagner militias would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.

“Mercenaries” The situation in Mali has been of growing concern to the international community since Colonel Assimi Goita staged a military coup in August 2020, toppling President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Under pressure from France and Mali’s neighbors, Goita pledged that Mali would return to civilian rule in February after presidential and legislative elections were held.

But he staged a second de facto coup in May 2021, forcing an interim civilian government and disrupting the schedule.

France announced a reduction of troops following the second putsch. The ruling army in Mali then considered hiring paramilitaries from Wagner, which further increased tensions.

A Western security official, an African diplomat in the Malian capital Bamako and a Malian elected official – all of whom refused to give their names – told AFP that Russian “mercenaries” were currently in Mali.

The Western security official, for example, said that “several hundred Russian mercenaries” from the Wagner group had been deployed in the center and north of the country.

However, one of the Malian army officers who spoke to AFP insisted that only Russian military advisers had been deployed in Mali.

“You talk about mercenaries, it’s your business. For us, they are Russian advisers,” said the officer.

“Unacceptable” But an elected official from central Mali, who requested anonymity, said there were both Russian advisers and mercenaries on the ground.

The official also suggested that not all the mercenaries were Russian nationals.

A senior French diplomat said on Friday that the alleged activity of the Wagner group in Mali was still being assessed.

“It is still unacceptable for Wagner to deploy in Mali,” the diplomat said, adding that the group’s presence creates security risks.

“The problem we have in Mali is first and foremost a political problem,” he said.

“There is a junta which has organized a coup, which exercises power illegitimately and which, in order to save itself, uses the services of Wagner.”

(AFP)

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