A deal is being made that would allow Russian mercenaries to enter Mali, seven diplomatic and security sources told Reuters. Such an agreement would expand Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa and spark fierce opposition from the former colonial power, France, which spent eight years fighting terrorism in the troubled region.
Paris has embarked on a diplomatic campaign to prevent the military junta in Mali from closing the deal – which would allow Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate there – sources told Reuters.
A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region told Reuters that at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved. Two other sources believed the number was lower, but did not provide figures.
Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid around 6 billion CFA francs (9 million euros / $ 10.8 million) per month for its services. A security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train the Malian army and provide protection for senior officials.
If Reuters sources are correct, it would be a “bombshell revelation,” said Cyril Payen, senior reporter for FRANCE 24.
“The French are retreating, they are leaving, especially the north of Mal; this is Operation Barkhane [which has] over 5,000 troops in Mali – so the game is between superpowers where let’s say Moscow sends these guys into the field when France leaves, ”Payen continued.
“It’s exactly the same experience in the Central African Republic on the border with Chad and Wagner’s mercenaries,” Payen said. “They are famous because they work in Ukraine, Sudan and in many places where they train in secrecy, they live in secrecy … It is extremely difficult to talk to these people to find out exactly who they are. are and what is their purpose – and they also die in secret.
What is the Russian group Wagner?
Reuters could not independently confirm how many mercenaries might be involved, how much they would be compensated, or establish the exact purpose of any deal involving Russian mercenaries would be for the Malian military junta.
Reuters could not reach the Wagner Group for comment. Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom media outlets including Reuters have linked to the Wagner group, denies any connection to the company.
Its press service also states on its social networking site Vkontakte that Prigozhin has nothing to do with a private military company, has no commercial interest in Africa, and is not involved in any activity there.
His press service did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment for the story.
Potential threat to terrorism
France’s diplomatic offensive, diplomatic sources say, includes securing help from partners, including the United States, to persuade the Malian junta not to pursue the deal, and sending senior diplomats in Moscow and Mali for talks.
France fears the arrival of Russian mercenaries could jeopardize its ten-year-old counterterrorism operation against insurgents linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel region of West Africa as it seeks to withdraw its 5,000-man Barkhane mission to reshape with other European partners, diplomatic sources said.
The French foreign ministry also did not respond, but a French diplomatic source criticized the interventions of the Wagner group in other countries.
“An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts made by the Sahelian and international partners of Mali engaged in the Coalition for the Sahel for the security and development of the region,” said the source.
A spokesperson for the head of the Malian junta, who seized power in a military coup in August 2020, said he had no information about such a deal.
“These are rumors. Officials do not comment on rumors,” said spokesman Baba Cisse, who declined to comment further.
A spokesman for the Malian Defense Ministry told Reuters: “Public opinion in Mali is in favor of greater cooperation with Russia given the current security situation. But no decision is taken. [on the nature of that cooperation] was done.”
Russia’s defense and foreign ministries did not respond to Reuters requests for comment, nor did the Kremlin or the French presidency.
The presence of the mercenaries would jeopardize Mali’s funding from international partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild the Malian army, four security and diplomatic sources said.
Franco-Russian rivalry in Africa
Having Russian mercenaries in Mali would increase Moscow’s pressure for prestige and global influence, and be part of a larger campaign to upset long-standing power dynamics in Africa, diplomatic sources said.
More than a dozen people with ties to the Wagner group previously told Reuters he had conducted clandestine combat missions on behalf of the Kremlin in Ukraine, Libya and Syria. Russian authorities are refusing Wagner contractors to fulfill their orders.
Mali’s military junta has said it will oversee a transition to democracy leading to elections in February 2022.
While relations with France have deteriorated, the Malian military junta has increased contacts with Russia, in particular Defense Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and supervising tank exercises on September 4.
A source from the Malian defense ministry said the visit was “within the framework of military cooperation and assistance” and gave no further details. The Russian Defense Ministry said Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin met Camara at an international military forum and “discussed in detail defense cooperation projects as well as related regional security issues. to West Africa “. No further details were disclosed.
The highest African diplomat in the French Foreign Ministry, Christophe Bigot, was dispatched to Moscow on September 8 to meet with Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s interlocutor on the Middle East and Africa. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the visit.
France’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the visit to Reuters. Reuters was unable to reach Bigot immediately for comment. The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment from Bogdanov.
“They are trying to fill the void to geopolitically counter French influence in West Africa,” Payen said. “In the [neighbouring] Central African Republic, there is really a proxy war on the ground because Wagner is in charge of presidential security against the French, so it contaminates relations between the two countries.
“It has become very unpleasant on the ground between Russian and French diplomats,” Payen continued. “The idea is just to take power not too much because Wagner is used, for example, to deal with mining companies to get money from governments and France does not do the same.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)