U.K. Warns Russia Mercenary Talks With Mali Risk Instability
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. government urged Mali to reconsider its engagement with a Russian mercenary group, warning that any deal risks undermining stability in West Africa.
The criticism of talks between the military junta in Africa’s third-biggest gold producer and Wagner Group adds to pressure from Economic Community of West African States leaders to halt the discussions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Mali approached the private military contractors to help fight an Islamist insurgency in the region as France scales down its force that’s combating the militants.
Wagner is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is subject to U.K. sanctions for mercenary activity in Libya.
“We support Ecowas in urging the Malian government to reconsider their engagement with Wagner in light of the implications that any deal would have on stability within its own borders and the wider region,” U.K. Minister for Africa Vicky Ford said in a statement. “Wagner does not offer long-term security answers in Africa.”
France has said it will eventually reduce its military presence in West Africa’s Sahel region from slightly more than 5,000 troops to about 2,500 to 3,000 troops. The planned French withdrawal led Mali to explore other options to deal with the Islamist insurgency, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga said Sept. 25.
Mali’s criticism of the French troop draw down has sparked a war of words between the two nations’ governments. Maiga accused France of abandoning Mali in its fight against the insurgents, drawing a rebuke from French President Emmanuel Macron.
“What the Malian prime minister said is unacceptable,” he said on Thursday. “It’s a shame and that dishonors what isn’t even a government.”
Mali is currently led by an interim government after suffering its second coup in nine months in May.
The insurgency in Mali is beginning to encroach on the nation’s mining industry, which accounts for about two-thirds of export earnings. Australian miner Firefinch Ltd. on Thursday reported an incident involving a convoy delivering equipment to its Morila mine site.
Five gendarmes were killed and four others injured Sept. 28 when the trucks were attacked by “terrorists,” Mali’s army chief of staff said in a statement. An al-Qaeda linked group operating in Mali later claimed responsibility for the attack in a video marking the group’s expansion into a region where it normally doesn’t operate.
The attack was the second such assault on a commercial convoy in the area this month, after a Sept. 12 raid by unidentified gunmen left two truck drivers dead.
The U.K. minister said Mali faces similar consequences to the Central African Republic if the government pursues its engagement with Wagner.
The Central African Republic turned to the mercenary group in 2017 to help the state wrest control of its diamond trade from rebel fighters and to stem a conflict that’s killed thousands of people and displaced 1 million others since 2012. The UN has accused Wagner troops in the country of attacks on civilians, extra-judicial killings and rape.
Mali’s is courting Wagner as it builds defense ties with Russia. On Thursday, the West African nation took delivery of four Russian military helicopters, arms and ammunition as part of a deal signed in December 2020, Defense Minister Sadio Camara said in the capital, Bamako.
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