Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Mali has asked a private Russian military company to help it fight against insurgents.
“They are combating terrorism, incidentally, and they have turned to a private military company from Russia in connection with the fact that, as I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its military component which was present there,” Lavrov said of Mali’s junta during a news conference on Saturday at the United Nations.
According to diplomatic sources, Mali’s year-old military junta is close to a deal to recruit Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group.
This triggered opposition from France, which has said it was “incompatible” with a continued French presence in the West African state.
Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that his country felt abandoned by the French move and signaled 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.”
“The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane puts Mali before a fait accompli – abandoning us, mid flight to a certain extent – and it leads us to explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously, or with other partners,” he said.
Earlier this month, France began redeploying it’s 5,000-strong Barkhane mission from bases in northern Mali.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday said that he told Lavrov and his counterpart from Mali that the potential deployment of the Wagner Group would be a “red line” for the European Union, “and it would have immediate consequences on our cooperation.”
EU foreign ministers discussed the issue on Monday during a closed-door meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Lavrov has said the Russian government had nothing to do with any deal between the private military company and Mali.