NICE, France (AP) — France on Thursday condemned the Malian transitional authorities' decision to allow the deployment of the Wagner Group, and accused Moscow of funding the private military company's use of mercenaries in the West African country.
“We are aware of the involvement of the Russian government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali,” the French foreign ministry said in an emailed statement. It called on Russia “to revert to a responsible and constructive behavior” in West Africa.
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in the country's northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.
In June, Col. Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional Malian government after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Mali faces increasing isolation from the international community over the junta’s power grab. Elections are due to be held in February, but there are fears they will be delayed.
“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,” the French statement said.
The Wagner Group has been accused by western governments and United Nations experts of human rights abuses in the Central African Republic and involvement in the conflict in Libya. France and Germany have both objected to the presence of its mercenaries in Mali.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that the company has a “legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government, and he has insisted that the Russian government is not involved.
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013, when they intervened to force the Islamic extremists from power in the country’s north. That operation was later extended to other countries in an effort to stabilize the broader Sahel region that includes Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauretania.
In July, President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of French troops in the Sahel force by early 2022 amid growing political instability in Mali and despite continued devastating attacks by Islamic militants in the region.
Hundreds have died this year alone of massacres targeting villages on the border of Niger and Mali.
France has said that Malian forces are ready to take over the heavy lifting in northern Mali but Macron promised his African partners after a meeting in July that his country will continue to help fight groups linked to Al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
Along with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Romania and other European Union countries joined in the condemnation of the mercenaries' deployment to Mali.
Barbara Surk, The Associated Press