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Mali denies using Russia's Wagner mercenaries

December 25, 2021

The government of Mali has denied using Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. Western countries involved in fighting jihadis in the Sahel beg to differ.

Moriba Niare, a tailor in a small market in the Hamdallaye neighborhood of Bamako,  makes a Russian flag last month
Moriba Niare, a tailor in a small market in the Malian capital Bamako makes a Russian flag last month as sales for Russia's tricolor flag have increased over the last year Image: Nicolas Remene/Le Pictorium//MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

The government of Mali said in a statement late Friday that the country is not deploying mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group.

In the statement, the Malian government through spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, said it "gives a formal denial to these baseless allegations" of "an alleged deployment of elements from a private security company in Mali."

On Thursday, more than a dozen Western nations condemned Mali for its use of Wagner mercenaries. Signatories including Canada, France, Germany and the UK said they "firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory."

The statement continued, "We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behavior in the region."

What did Mali say?

By contrast, Mali "demands that proof be brought to it by independent sources," and insisted only "Russian trainers" are in Mali. The government said Russia's presence was to strengthen operational capabilities for national defense.

The statement added that Mali was "only involved in a state-to-state partnership with the Russian Federation, its historical partner."

Russia denies Wagner mercenaries are an official part of the state, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has given his blessing for Russia mercenaries to work anywhere globally as long as they are not in violation of Russian laws.

Why is the Western statement significant?

The statement by Western countries is among the first acknowledgements that Wagner mercenaries are now active in Mali after months of warnings.

A French government source told AFP: "We are seeing repeated air rotations with military transport planes belonging to the Russian army and installations at Bamako airport to allow the arrival of a significant number of mercenaries."

The government official added that several Wagner executives have visited Bamako of late as well as Russian geologists who are known for their association with Wagner.

Why are Western countries involved in Mali?

A jihadist insurgency began in northern Mali in 2012 before expanding in 2015 to neighbors Niger and Burkina Faso. In 2013, France intervened in the conflict.

Currently, there are 1,350 German Bundeswehr soldiers and 5,000 French troops in Mali, though France expects to reduce that number by nearly half by 2023.

French President Emmanuel Macron had planned to raise the alleged Wagner Group deployments during his meeting with transitional leader Colonel Assimi Goita during his trip to Mali this week, though the trip was aborted amid rising concerns about COVID-19 in Europe and the spread of the omicron variant.

The US State Department has said that the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali could cost Bamako more than $10 million (€8.8 million) per month and lead to further destabilization of an already unstable country.

Mali, with a population around 20 million, has seen three military coups since 2012. The country is considered an extremely unstable country politically.

ar/wd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)