A deal is near that would allow Russian mercenaries to enter Mali, seven diplomatic and security sources told Reuters. Such an agreement would expand Russian influence over security issues in West Africa and trigger fierce opposition from former colonial power France, which has spent eight years fighting terrorism in this troubled region.
Paris has started a diplomatic campaign to prevent the military junta in Mali from enacting the agreement, which would allow Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate there, the sources told Reuters.
A European source tracking 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 receive about 6 billion CFA francs (€ 9 million / $ 10.8 million) a month for its services. A security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train the Malian army and provide protection to senior officials.
If the Reuters sources are correct, it would be an “explosive revelation,” said Jowharsenior reporter Cyril Payen.
“The French are retreating, they are leaving, especially in the north of Mal; this is Operation Barkhane [which has] more than 5,000 soldiers in Mali, so the game is between superpowers where, let’s say, Moscow will send these guys to the ground when France leaves, ”Payen continued.
“This is exactly the same experience in the Central African Republic on the border with Chad and the Wagner mercenaries,” Payen said. “They are recognized because they are working in Ukraine, in Sudan and in many places where they train in secret, they live in secret … It is extremely difficult to talk to these people to know exactly who they are and what their purpose is, and they also die in secret” .
Reuters could not independently confirm how many mercenaries might be involved, how much they would be compensated, or state the exact target any deal involving Russian mercenaries would be for Mali’s military junta.
Reuters was unable to reach the Wagner Group for comment. Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been linked to the Wagner Group by media outlets such as Reuters, denies any connection to the company.
His press service also says on his social media site Vkontakte that Prigozhin has nothing to do with any private military company, has no business interests in Africa, and is not involved in any activity there.
His press service did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment for this story.
Potential threat to the fight against terrorism
France’s diplomatic offensive, diplomatic sources said, includes enlisting the help of partners, including the United States, to persuade Mali’s board not to go ahead with the deal, and sending high-level diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks. .
France is concerned that the arrival of Russian mercenaries will undermine its decade-long counterterrorism operation against al Qaeda and insurgents linked to Islamic State groups in the Sahel region of West Africa as it seeks to reduce its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission. to reshape it with other European partners, diplomatic sources said.
The French Foreign Ministry did not respond either, but a French diplomatic source criticized the Wagner Group’s interventions in other countries.
“An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts made by Mali’s Sahelian and international partners participating in the Coalition for the Sahel for the security and development of the region,” said the source.
A spokesman for the Malian junta leader, who seized power in a military coup in August 2020, said he had no information on such an agreement.
“These are rumors. Officials do not comment on the rumors,” said the spokesman, Baba Cisse, who declined to comment further.
The Malian Defense Ministry spokesman told Reuters: “Public opinion in Mali is in favor of further cooperation with Russia given the current security situation. But there is no decision. [on the nature of that cooperation] was made.”
Russia’s defense and foreign ministries did not respond to Reuters requests for comment, nor did the Kremlin or the French presidency.
The mercenaries’ presence would jeopardize Mali’s funding of international partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild Mali’s army, four diplomatic and security sources said.
Franco-Russian rivalry in Africa
Having Russian mercenaries in Mali would strengthen Moscow’s drive for global prestige and influence, and would be part of a larger campaign to shake up long-standing power dynamics in Africa, diplomatic sources said.
More than a dozen people linked to the Wagner Group have previously told Reuters that it has carried out clandestine combat missions on behalf of the Kremlin in Ukraine, Libya and Syria. The Russian authorities deny Wagner’s contractors to carry out their orders.
Mali’s military junta has said it will oversee a transition to democracy leading to elections in February 2022.
As relations with France have worsened, Mali’s military junta has increased contacts with Russia, including Defense Minister Sadio Camara who visits Moscow and oversees tank exercises on September 4.
A senior source in the Malian Defense Ministry said the visit was carried out in “the framework of cooperation and military assistance” and did not elaborate. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin had met with Camara during an international military forum and “discussed defense cooperation projects in detail, as well as regional security issues related to West Africa.” . No further details have been provided.
The top African diplomat at the French Foreign Ministry, Christophe Bigot, was sent to Moscow to speak on September 8 with Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s key person in the Middle East and Africa. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the visit.
The French Foreign Ministry declined to comment with Reuters on the visit. Reuters could not immediately reach Bigot 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 counter French geopolitical influence in West Africa,” Payen said. “At [neighbouring] Central African Republic, there really is a proxy war in the field because Wagner is taking care of presidential security against the French, so he is contaminating relations between the two countries. ”
“It has become very unpleasant on the ground among Russian and French diplomats,” Payen continued. “The idea is just to take power for not too much because Wagner is used to, for example, taking care of mining companies to get money from governments and France is not doing the same.”
( Jowhar with REUTERS)