| 23 February 2024, Friday |

French Minister heads to Sahel amid talk of Russian hired guns for Mali

On Sunday, France’s Armed Forces Minister landed in Niger as part of a two-day trip to Sahel allies, where French-led military operations against Islamist terrorists are threatened by Mali’s negotiations with Russian defense contractors.

According to Reuters, Mali’s year-old military junta is close to enlisting the Russian Wagner Group, and France has begun a diplomatic campaign to prevent it, claiming that such an agreement is “incompatible” with the country’s continuing presence.

ECOWAS, West Africa’s largest political organization, has expressed alarm as well.

But Mali’s junta has dug in, noting that France has begun scaling down its decade-old operation against insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State across the region, expecting other European countries such as Germany to get more involved.

On Sunday, Mali’s Foreign Ministry called objections from Niger to the prospect of a deal with Wagner “unacceptable, unfriendly and condescending”.

A few days ago, Paris said it had killed the leader of Islamic State in Western Sahara in northern Mali, but France has nevertheless found the junta more difficult to deal with than the preceding civilian governments.

A French Armed Forces Ministry source briefing reporters said Parly would discuss France’s plans to reshape its operations with countries in the region, warn of consequences if Mali secured Wagner’s services, and stress the importance of the junta holding a democratic election next February, as promised.

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, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European special forces to work alongside local forces.

The European force in the Sahel so far comprises about 600 troops from nine countries.

  • Reuters