France’s defence minister has warned Mali that hiring paramilitaries from Russian private-security firm Wagner would isolate the country internationally, during a visit to the Sahel state.
Florence Parly told reporters on Monday that if Mali hired the firm, at a time when international partners fighting jihadism in the Sahel “had never been so numerous, such a choice would be that of isolation”.
Parly’s meeting with her Malian counterpart Colonel Sadio Camara follows a previous warning to Bamako from its former colonial power last week, after reports that Mali’s army-dominated government was close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries.
The Russian company is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has been accused of committing abuses.
A Malian defence 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 “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 pledged a major troop drawdown across the Sahel.
Parly responded that France was not abandoning Mali, the official added.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, speaking after talks among European foreign ministers at the United Nations, also warned against doing business with the Wagner Group, which he said was trying to expand its reach.
“Certainly this would not help our relation with the Mali government,” Borrell said.
– ‘Mercenaries’ –
Parly’s visit follows months of tense relations between France and Mali, exacerbated by two military coups in the space of one year.
France is concerned about military strongman Colonel Assimi Goita’s commitment to hold swift elections to return Mali to civilian rule.
Paris’ plan to reduce troop numbers across the Sahel, with several French army bases in northern Mali set to close by early 2022, is also a source of friction.
Before meeting Camara on Monday, Parly told journalists: “We will not be able to cohabit with mercenaries”.
Russian paramilitaries, private-security instructors and companies have grown increasingly influential in Africa in recent years, particularly in the conflict-ridden Central African Republic (CAR), where the United Nations has accused Wagner contractors of committing abuses.
Last week, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix insisted that any partnership between Mali and Wagner had to be “carried out in full respect for human rights”.
The UN has 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali.
Germany, which also has troops in the country, has warned Bamako it will reconsider its deployment should the government strike a deal with Wagner.
– Political turmoil –
Already battling a jihadist insurgency, Mali slid into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under the threat of sanctions, the military then appointed an interim civilian government tasked with steering the country back to democratic rule.
But Goita overthrew the leaders of that interim government in May — in a second putsch — and was later declared interim president himself, drawing international condemnation.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced his troop reductions in July in the aftermath of the second coup.
Goita has pledged to respect a February 2022 deadline for civilian elections set by the previous interim government.
But rampant insecurity in Mali, which has left swathes of the country outside of government control, has cast doubt on the reform timetable.