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Any decision by Mali to hire Russian private security company Wagner to help it fight Islamist insurgents would be “suicide” and “a red line” for other countries in west Africa, Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast, has said.
Mali’s military government, which seized power in a coup in May, has defended its right to “seek other partners” after accusing France of abandoning the country in its campaign to defeat insurgents.
In July, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said he planned to halve the number of troops deployed in the Sahel, in so-called Operation Barkhane, to 2,500 and to shift military headquarters from Mali to Niger.
At the weekend, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that Mali had requested help from private Russian companies after determining that “its own capacities would be insufficient in the absence of external support”. Lavrov denied that the Russian government was involved in the proposed deal in which Mali is reported to be close to recruiting 1,000 Russian paramilitaries.
In an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, Ouattara, who began a controversial third term in November last year, said that, if Mali’s government went ahead with hiring Wagner, it would be left alone to fight its growing terrorist threat.
“First, the French will withdraw their troops. The Germans have said the same. And I’m sure the UN will start dismantling Minusma,” he said, referring to the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force. “What will Mali do then? They cannot fight by themselves.”
Of the Wagner group, he said: “They are militias. We know what they did in Syria, in Donbas [eastern Ukraine] and in the Central African Republic.”
United Nations investigators have accused mercenaries deployed by Wagner in the Central African Republic of committing atrocities. In 2018, Wagner operatives are alleged to have participated in attacks on American troops in Syria.
Choguel Kokalla Maiga, Mali’s prime minister, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, criticised France’s decision to cut its troop deployment.
“The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane puts Mali before a fait accompli,” he said. “It leads us to explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously or with other partners.”
Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, denied that France was abandoning Mali, saying: “When you have thousands of troops on the ground . . . and deploy brand-new tanks in the Sahel, that is hardly the attitude of a country that is looking for a way out.”
But Ouattara said he understood France’s decision to scale down its operations, which began with an intervention in 2013 when French troops helped liberate northern Mali from an Islamist takeover.
In addition to reducing the size of its deployment, France is expected to shift the focus of its operations to Niger which, along with Burkina Faso, has been the target of increasingly intense terrorist attacks.
“They’ve done what we asked them to do,” Ouattara said of France’s intervention in Mali. “We should not continue to rely on foreign troops for our domestic security.”
Mali and other countries in the region targeted by terrorists must start recruiting, training and equipping troops, Ouattara said. “A year ago, I told them, it is clear: the French will leave sooner or later,” he said, adding that west African countries needed to work more closely together to combat the growing insurgency threat as terrorist groups moved freely across largely unpatrolled borders.
Ouattara said that his government had stepped up its military response following several attacks on the country’s northern frontier, including one in June 2020 in which 14 soldiers were killed in Kafolo near the border with Burkina Faso.
“We’re trying to do all that we can, both in terms of having more soldiers, having more equipment, better conditions for soldiers and deploying soldiers along the border,” he said, referring to Ivory Coast’s northern frontier with Mali and Burkina Faso.
Ouattara, who sparked anger when he ran for a third term after his chosen successor died shortly before last year’s election, expressed concern about growing instability in a region where leaders have sought to cling on to power and coups have made a comeback. This month, soldiers overthrew Alpha Condé, president of Guinea, who changed the constitution shortly before last year’s election to allow him to run for a third term.
Ouattara criticised Condé but said that he condemned all coups and urged a swift restoration of democracy. West African leaders had made it clear to Mali’s generals, he said, that they must hold an election by next February and return to barracks. “We will not budge on that,” he said. “If not, we will reinforce the sanctions.”
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