By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) -France's Armed Forces minister defended her country's counterterrorism role in Mali and accused the military junta of hypocrisy, bad faith and wanting to delay a transition to democracy after the African country's prime minister said Paris was abandoning it.
Relations between France and its former colony have soured since Paris said in June it would reshape its 5,000-strong counterterrorism mission in the region and the junta began talks to bring Russian mercenaries into the country.
"The objective (of Mali) is not to keep the commitments made vis-à-vis the international community," France's minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, said.
"I have the impression that the date (for the election) doesn't suit them perfectly, and that they want to prolong things. But from wanting that to wiping your feet on the blood of French soldiers, it's unacceptable," she said, referring to the death of a French soldier in Mali last week.
Speaking to state television ORTM and other media after returning to Bamako, Mali's interim prime minister, Choguel Maiga, said he did not want to comment on France's accusations at this stage. But he added: "the Malian people have never been and will never be ungrateful."
Mali's progress back to democracy following the August 2020 overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is being closely monitored in a region that has experienced four coups in 13 months, two of them in Mali.
Mali's military leaders agreed to an 18-month transition that would culminate with presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 27, 2022, but on Sunday Maiga said that date could be postponed.
He also told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that his country felt abandoned by the French move and signalled they were seeking other military help "to fill the gap which will certainly result from the withdrawal of Barkhane in the north of the country." Barkhane is France's counterterrorism operation in the Sahel region.
Denying Paris was abandoning Mali, Parly said Bamako had been kept informed at every turn on how France would reorganise its mission in the region.
"It's a lot of hypocrisy, bad faith and indecency especially because he made those comments on Sept. 25 and on Friday Sept. 24 a 52nd French soldier gave his life to fighting terrorism in the Sahel," Parly told students at Sciences Po university late on Monday.
Diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters that Mali's year-old military junta is close to recruiting the Russian Wagner Group, and France has launched a diplomatic drive to thwart it, saying such an arrangement is "incompatible" with a continued French presence.
The French army started redeploying troops from its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali at the start of the month, French army sources have said.
France wants to complete the redeployment by January. It is reducing its contingent to 2,500-3,000 from about 5,000 by 2023, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European special forces to work alongside local forces.
(Reporting by John Irish in Paris and Christophe Van Der Perre in DakarEditing by William Maclean and Matthew Lewis)