French Defence Minister Florence Parly has warned Mali against a deal with Russian private security group Wagner amid claims the country’s military government is close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries.
Two French sources told the AFP news agency on Tuesday that the Malian government was nearing a deal with the controversial Russian firm, which would underline Moscow’s growing influence in the region.
“If the Malian authorities entered into a contract with Wagner, it would be extremely worrying and contradictory, incoherent with everything that we have done for years and we intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region,” Parly told a parliamentary commission.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry did not deny the discussions, which were first reported by the Reuters news agency on Monday.
“Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country,” the spokesperson told AFP. “We haven’t signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone.”
Four sources told Reuters that the Wagner Group would be paid about six billion CFA francs ($10.8m) a month for its services, and that the mercenaries’ presence would jeopardise Mali’s funding from the international partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild Mali’s army.
France sent troops to Mali in 2013 after fighters overran the north of the country.
Since then, Paris has deployed thousands of troops to the wider Sahel region where they carry out operations alongside local forces against fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group.
Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since a coup in August 2020 removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron has announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the region.
The arrival of Russian mercenaries in Mali would be a “red line” for Macron, one of the French sources said, adding that Paris could send its troops stationed in the country to neighbouring Niger.
A French diplomatic source criticised interventions by the Wagner Group in other countries.
“An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts carried out by Mali’s Sahelian and international partners engaged in the Coalition for the Sahel for security and development of the region,” the source said.
In recent years, Russian paramilitaries, “security instructors”, companies and advisors have grown increasingly influential in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), whose relations with France have also nosedived.
Forces from Wagner are also reported to be present in various countries elsewhere in Africa, including in Libya in support of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, in Sudan and in Mozambique.
As relations with France have worsened, Mali’s military government has increased contacts with Russia, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and overseeing tank exercises on September 4.
A senior Malian defence ministry source told Reuters earlier this week that the visit was in “the framework of cooperation and military assistance” and gave no further details.
A diplomat in the Russian embassy in Mali told AFP that “we are not aware of any contract being signed between Mali and Wagner” and that the embassy had “not been the intermediary”.
“Like France and other countries, we are worried about security in the region,” the diplomat said.
Wagner was first seen in Mali by AFP at the end of 2019 when a small team was identified in the capital Bamako just after Keita, the overthrown president, had signed a military cooperation deal with Russia.
In the CAR, France and NGOs have denounced the role played by Wagner, which is allegedly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by both the EU and US, has denied links to Wagner and any role in conflicts in Africa.