France warned Mali on Thursday that it would lose the support of the international community if it agreed a deal with Russian mercenaries.
Diplomatic and security sources have 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.
“If Mali commits to a partnership with these mercenaries, then Mali will isolate itself and will lose the support of the international community which is heavily engaged in Mali,” Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told lawmakers.
“It is not possible to co-habit with mercenaries.”
Relations between France and its former colony have soured over Wagner and since Paris said in June it would reshape its 5 000-strong counter-terrorism mission in the region.
Mali’s prime minister accused Paris of abandoning Bamako in a speech at the United Nations on Saturday. Reuters has been unable to reach the Wagner Group for comment.
“It is scandalous to try to make the entire world believe that France is leaving. Trying to make people believe that it’s normal to call for a group of mercenaries to come to Mali’s side using the pretext that we are giving them back three military bases in the north is bad faith,” Parly said.
She said the prime minister’s comments were particularly shocking given the death last week of a 52nd French soldier in the Sahel. He will receive a national tribute on Thursday.
French officials say the junta is turning to Wagner as part of efforts to cling to power beyond transition period which is due to end after the 27 February presidential and legislative elections.
The French army started redeploying troops from its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali at the start of the month, French army sources have said.
France wants to complete the redeployment by January. It is reducing its contingent to 2 500-3 000 from about 5 000 by 2023, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European special forces to work alongside local forces.