French Defense Minister Florence Parly has warned Mali against a deal with the Russian private security group Wagner amid claims that 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 on the verge of reaching a deal with the controversial Russian firm, underscoring Moscow’s growing influence in the region.
“If the Malian authorities signed a contract with Wagner, it would be extremely worrying and contradictory, inconsistent with everything that we have done for years and intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region,” Parly told a parliamentary committee.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Malian Defense Ministry spokesman did not deny the discussions, which were first reported by the Reuters news agency on Monday.
“Mali intends to diversify its relations in the medium term to guarantee the security of the country,” the spokesperson told AFP. “We have not signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking to everyone.”
Four sources told Reuters that the Wagner Group would receive about six billion CFA francs ($ 10.8 million) a month for its services and that the presence of the mercenaries would jeopardize Mali’s funding from international partners and the allied training missions that have helped rebuild the Malian army.
France sent troops to Mali in 2013 after fighters invaded 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 ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and reduce 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 neighboring Niger.
A French diplomatic source criticized the Wagner Group’s interventions in other countries.
“Therefore, an intervention by this actor would 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.
In recent years, Russian paramilitaries, “security instructors”, companies and advisers have acquired increasing influence in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), whose relations with France have also collapsed.
The presence of Wagner forces has also been reported in several African countries, including 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 Defense Minister Sadio Camara who visits Moscow and oversees tank exercises on September 4.
A senior source in Mali’s Defense Ministry told Reuters earlier this week that the visit was carried out in “the framework of military cooperation and assistance” and did not elaborate.
A diplomat from the Russian embassy in Mali told AFP that “we are not aware that any contract was signed between Mali and Wagner” and that the embassy “was not the intermediary.”
“Like France and other countries, we are concerned about security in the region,” the diplomat said Wagner was first seen in Mali by AFP in late 2019 when a small team was identified in the capital Bamako, just after Keita, the ousted president, signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia.
However, In the Central African Republic, France and NGOs have denounced the role played by Wagner, allegedly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by both the EU and the United States, has denied having ties to Wagner and any role in the conflicts in Africa.