Around 300-400 Russian mercenaries operate in Mali: French official

Between 300 and 400 Russian mercenaries operate in central Mali, a senior French Armed Forces ministry official said, challenging a West African junta claim that only Russian military trainers are deployed there.

Other West African countries have closed borders with Mali, severed diplomatic ties and imposed economic sanctions in response to its delay in holding elections following a military coup of 2020, the 15-state regional bloc announced on Sunday.

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These measures were also a response to the arrival of private military contractors from the Russian group Wagner, whose members are mostly former soldiers.

“I would say that there are around 300 to 400 members of Wagner and that there are also Russian coaches, who provide equipment,” the French official told reporters in a briefing Monday evening.

The official, who requested anonymity, said Russian mercenaries had deployed with Malian forces in the center of the country.

The Malian junta, which proposed a five-year transition rather than withdrawing in February as originally planned, said the new forces are military instructors who came with equipment purchased from Russia.

The European Union has imposed sanctions on the Wagner group, accusing it of clandestine operations on behalf of the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin said the group does not represent the Russian state, but private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.

France has thousands of soldiers fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region and in December joined 15 other countries, mostly European states operating in Mali, in condemning the possible arrival of mercenaries.

Paris said such a decision would be incompatible with the French presence in Mali.

“The fact that Wagner is in another part of Mali limits the risk of interaction which would be very difficult (for us) to accept,” said the French official. “They (the junta) have chosen to turn their backs on Europeans, Americans and Africans and that has consequences.”

He said consultations were underway between France and its European partners, who have provided special forces to Mali, on how to respond. Decisions are likely at European Union level at the end of January, he said.

Read more:

Russian military advisers in Mali: sources from the Malian army

EU imposes sanctions on Russian military group Wagner

Russia will continue to aid Mali militarily despite Western criticism, senior official says

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