The French defense minister warned Mali that hiring paramilitaries from Russian private security company Wagner would isolate the country internationally, during a visit to the Sahel state.
Parly’s meeting with his Malian counterpart, Colonel Sadio Camara, follows an earlier warning to Bamako from its former colonial power last week, after reports that the military-dominated Malian government was on the verge of demise. ‘hire 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries.
The Russian company is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has been accused of committing abuses.
An official from the Malian Ministry of Defense, who requested anonymity, told AFP that Camara had assured Parly that no decision had been taken.
The minister explained that France’s “abandonment” of Mali meant that “everything had to be taken into account to secure the country,” the official said.
France, which has thousands of troops stationed in the war-torn country, has pledged a major withdrawal of its troops across the Sahel.
Parly replied that France was not abandoning Mali, the official added.
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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking after talks between EU foreign ministers at the United Nations, also warned against trade relations with the Wagner group, which, according to him, was trying to extend its reach.
“It certainly wouldn’t help our relationship with the Malian government,” Borrell said.
Parly’s visit follows months of strained relations between France and Mali, exacerbated by two military coups in the space of a year.
France is concerned about the commitment of the military strongman, Colonel Assimi Goita, to organize swift elections to bring Mali back to civilian rule.
Paris’ plan to reduce troop numbers across the Sahel, with the closure of several French army bases in northern Mali by early 2022, is also a source of friction.
Before meeting Camara on Monday, Parly told reporters: “We will not be able to cohabit with mercenaries”.
Russian paramilitaries, private security instructors and companies have become increasingly influential in Africa in recent years, particularly in the conflict-ridden Central African Republic (CAR), where the United Nations has accused Wagner’s contractors of having committed abuses.
Last week, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, insisted that any partnership between Mali and Wagner must be “carried out with full respect for human rights” .
The UN has 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali.
Germany, which also has troops in the country, has warned Bamako that it will reconsider its deployment if the government reaches a deal with Wagner.
Already grappling with a jihadist insurgency, Mali sank into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions, the army then appointed an interim civilian government to bring the country back to democratic rule.
But Goita overthrew the leaders of that interim government in May – in a second putsch – and was later declared interim president himself, drawing international condemnation.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced his troop cuts in July in the aftermath of the second coup.
Goita has pledged to meet the February 2022 deadline for civil elections set by the previous interim government.
But widespread insecurity in Mali, which has left parts of the country out of government control, has cast doubt on the timing of reforms.