France’s defense minister warned Mali that the hiring of paramilitaries from the Russian private security firm Wagner would isolate the country internationally, during a visit to the Sahel state.
Florence Parly told reporters Monday that if Mali were to hire the firm, at a time when international partners fighting jihadism in the Sahel “have never been so numerous, that option would be isolation.”
Parly’s meeting with his Malian counterpart, Colonel Sadio Camara, follows an earlier warning to Bamako of its former colonial power last week, following reports that the army-dominated government of Mali was close to hiring. 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries.
The Russian company considers itself close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has been accused of abuses.
A Malian Defense Ministry official, who requested anonymity, told AFP that Camara had assured Parly that no decision had been made.
The minister explained that France’s “abandonment” of Mali meant that “everything had to be considered to secure the country,” the official said.
France, which has thousands of troops stationed in the war-torn country, has promised a major troop reduction in the Sahel.
Parly responded that France is not leaving Mali, the official added.
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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking after talks between Europe’s foreign ministers at the United Nations, also warned against doing business with the Wagner Group, which he said was trying to expand its reach.
“This certainly would not help our relationship with the Malian government,” Borrell said.
Parly’s visit follows months of tense 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 leader Colonel Assimi Goita to hold speedy elections to return Mali to civilian rule.
Paris’s plan to reduce the number of troops in the Sahel, with several French army bases in northern Mali slated to close in early 2022, is also a source of friction.
Before meeting Camara on Monday, Parly told reporters: “We will not be able to live with mercenaries.”
Russian paramilitaries, private security instructors and companies have become increasingly influential in Africa in recent years, particularly in the conflict-ravaged Central African Republic (CAR), where the United Nations has accused Wagner’s contractors of commit abuse.
Last week, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping 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, warned Bamako that it will reconsider its deployment if the government reaches an agreement with Wagner.
Already fighting a jihadist insurgency, Mali plunged into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions, the military appointed an interim civilian government tasked with bringing the country back to a democratic government.
But Goita overthrew the leaders of that interim government in May, in a second coup, and was later declared interim president, prompting international condemnation.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced his troop reduction in July after the second coup.
Goita has pledged to abide by the February 2022 deadline for civil elections set by the previous interim government.
But rampant insecurity in Mali, which has left swaths of the country out of government control, has cast doubt on the reform schedule.