France summoned the Mali ambassador on Thursday after rejecting as “false” and “unacceptable” his allegations of rowdy behavior by French soldiers helping the West African nation to fight an Islamic insurgency.
Toumani Djime Diallo was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where “we expressed our indignation at his baseless and shocking words on behalf of a country allied in the fight against terrorism,” the ministry told AFP. .
France has 5,100 soldiers as part of Operation Barkhane, a mission to roll back jihadism in Mali as well as in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad in the Sahel region of Africa.
But its presence has been criticized by some in the region, who balk at the prominent military role played by a former colonial power.
Mali later recalled Diallo to Bamako, said a Malian source. Foreign Minister Tiebile Drama has been sent to Paris “to strengthen friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The trip was decided today in response to statements from the past 24 hours,” said a Malian diplomatic source.
The envoy from Paris will return to Bamako on Friday, said a source close to the Malian presidency without giving further details.
Diallo complained to the French Senate on Wednesday about “problems” caused by what he said were soldiers of the French Foreign Legion deployed on Malian soil.
He denounced “excesses” in the capital Bamako.
“Sometimes you see them in the red light districts of Bamako, their bodies completely covered with tattoos, behaving in a way that does not correspond to [French] the army we know, “said Diallo.
“It scares people, it makes languages move.”
Making such allegations while French troops risk their lives to protect citizens was “indecent,” said the office of Defense Minister Florence Parly in a statement to AFP.
“Rather than channeling and spreading false accusations, we expect the ambassador of Mali to devote all his energy to the implementation of the Pau summit and the success of all,” added the press release with irony, referring to a meeting between France and its allies in the Sahel last month.
“Down with France”
There were “hardly any” French soldiers stationed in Bamako, according to the press release, adding that the charges were “unacceptable and indecent while France has resolutely engaged in the fight against the terrorist groups which threaten the people of Sahel “.
The deployment of France is by far the largest foreign contribution to the fight against extremists aligned with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Last month, hundreds of people gathered in Bamako to protest against the presence of French soldiers, holding up signs saying “Down with France, Barkhane must leave” and “France is an obstacle to our development”.
This criticism angered French officials, particularly after 13 soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in Mali while chasing jihadist fighters – the deadliest death toll for the French army in nearly four decades.
>> Read more: Mission impossible for France in the Sahel?
Last month, in Pau, in the southwest of France, French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders of five countries in the Sahel pledged to jointly strengthen efforts against jihadists fighting the increasingly deadly insurgency.
Macron denounced “foreign powers” for stoking anti-French sentiment amid reports that Russian paramilitary fighters were increasingly active in the Sahel.
And he complained of a lack of “clear political condemnation of anti-French sentiments” on the ground, saying he was reluctant to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not “clearly desired”.
Despite the French presence and a United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali called MINUSMA with 13,000 members, the conflict that erupted in the north of this country in 2012 has since spread to its neighbors, particularly in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of civilians and hundreds of soldiers have been killed and more than a million people have been displaced. France lost 41 soldiers.