An Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft delivered four Mi-171 helicopters, weapons and ammunition from Russia to Mali late on Thursday, Malian interim defence minister Sadio Camara has said.
He said Mali had bought the helicopters in a contract agreed in December 2020 to support its armed forces in their battle alongside French, European and UN troops with insurgents linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda.
“Mali bought these helicopters from the Russia Federation, a friendly country with which Mali has always maintained a very fruitful partnership,” he told local media on the tarmac after the plane landed in the capital Bamako, adding that the weapons and ammunition were given by Russia.
This follows on from four Mi-35 attack helicopters acquired by Mali from Russia in recent years.
The new aircraft will be used to support Mali’s counter-insurgency and terrorism efforts. The country has been in turmoil since 2012, when Tuareg rebels took over the north and advanced towards the capital, Bamako.
The latest delivery comes at a moment of tense relations between Mali and its key military partner France over reports Bamako could recruit Russian mercenaries as Paris reshapes its 5 000-strong counter-terrorism mission in the region.
Diplomatic and security sources told Reuters that Mali’s year-old military junta is close to recruiting the Russian Wagner Group, and France has launched a diplomatic drive to thwart it, saying such an arrangement is incompatible with a continued French presence.
Meanwhile Mali’s prime minister on Saturday accused Paris of abandoning Bamako in a speech at the United Nations.
Responding to this charge for the first time, President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday questioned the legitimacy of the Malian authorities overseeing a transition to elections after two coups in just over a year.
“What the Malian prime minister said is unacceptable. It’s a shame. And that dishonours what isn’t even a government,” he told Radio France International.