France accused Mali’s ambassador on Thursday of spreading false accusations against its soldiers that could play into the hands of Islamist militants at a time when Paris is trying to organise a more efficient response to insurgency in the region.
France, the former colonial power, has 5,100 troops in Mali and the wider Sahel, but security has been progressively worsening since it intervened in 2013 to stop a jihadist advance to the Malian capital, Bamako.
Critics in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability and anti-French sentiment has grown as militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.
That in part pushed President Emmanuel Macron to hold a summit in the French city of Pau last month demanding that the leaders of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania clarify their positions and reaffirm their support for French troops.
On Wednesday, Mali’s ambassador to France, Toumani Djime Diallo, appeared to reopen the debate telling French lawmakers that members of the French foreign legion parachutist regiment were out of control in Bamako.
“At times … you find them, with tattoos all over their bodies, rendering an image that is not the one we know of the (French) army. It scares, it intrigues”, he said in a public hearing alongside colleagues from Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso.
“Some (of them) do whatever they want in the streets of Bamako, it’s not good for the image of France.”
The Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement that no French legionnaires have ever been deployed in Bamako, rather they have been deployed in the border regions linking Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso where there are active operations. It accused the ambassador of spreading “false accusations”.
“This is unacceptable and indecent when France is firmly committed to fighting terrorist groups which threaten the populations of the Sahel,” the official said.
“Rather than propagating false accusations, we expect Mali’s ambassador to mobilise all his action for the implementation of the decisions of the Pau summit.”
Mali’s embassy declined to comment.
France and the five West African states agreed at the Pau meeting to combine their military forces under one command structure and focus on fighting Islamic State-linked militants in the border regions of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.