France, U.K., Partners Say Russia-Backed Wagner Deployed in Mali
(Bloomberg) -- France, the U.K., Germany and 12 other governments with ties to Africa’s Sahel region said they have witnessed the deployment of Russian mercenaries of the Wagner force to Mali, and that Russia is backing the move.
Wagner is controlled by Yegveny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has deployed his private army to hot spots around the world, including Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, in support of Kremlin policy.
“We deeply regret the choice of the Malian transitional authorities to use already scarce public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the Malian Armed Forces and public services to the benefit of the Malian people,” read a joint statement published on Thursday by France and signed by Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, the U.K. and Sweden.
The Wagner deployment to Mali -- a former French colony -- adds to tensions between the U.S., Europe and Russia, which has also been building up forces close to Ukraine.
“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,” the statement also said.
Sanctioned for Abuses
Wagner was sanctioned last week by the European Union for abuses including “torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.” Prigozhin denies he controls Wagner, but the U.S. and EU reject that.
Prigozhin, who’s known as “Putin’s Chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts, is under U.S. sanctions for alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Moscow denies links to the mercenaries.
France’s foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has previously said that France -- whose counter-terrorism presence in the Sahel is backed by a European force named Takuba, and its international partners -- could withdraw their support should the Malian government decide to work with Wagner.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department also said it was alarmed by a “potential deployment of Russia-backed Wagner Group forces in Mali,” but didn’t sign the joint statement published Thursday.
It’s unclear what consequences the deployment will actually have on the ground. The statement said that the international community will not give up on “efforts to address the needs of the Malian population.”
A French government official said any decision must be made collectively, and will depend on the political situation in Mali. The official declined to say whether or not France would withdraw from Mali. The person, who declined to be identified in line with government rules, also said that France has observed the presence of Wagner operators and logistics preparations on the ground with the involvement of the Russian government, but declined to say where this information came from.
French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this year that France would scale down its military presence in the Sahel region to about 2,500 troops by 2022, from 5,100 for its Barkane mission. He hopes to rope in more support from European countries in the Takuba task force, and has called the region on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert “crucial for the whole Europe.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.