Mali denies deployment of Russian mercenaries
BAMAKO: Mali's government has denied any deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group following charges by a group of 15 Western powers involved in the fight against militants in the Sahel country.
The government "gives a formal denial to these baseless allegations" of "an alleged deployment of elements from a private security company in Mali," it said in a statement released late Friday.
Mali's government "demands that proof be brought to it by independent sources" and said "Russian trainers" were in Mali as part of strengthening the operational capacity of the national defence and security forces.
Bamako was "only involved in a state-to-state partnership with the Russian Federation, its historical partner", said the statement signed by government spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga.
A group of 15 Western powers on Thursday expressed anger that Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner group had started to deploy in Mali, accusing Moscow of providing material backing for the fighters.
The nations involved in the fight against a militant insurgency in Mali, including Canada, Germany, France and Britain, said they "firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory".
"We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behaviour in the region," they said.
It was one of the first official acknowledgements by Western capitals that the deployment of fighters has begun in Mali after months of warnings to the Bamako government.
There has been growing concern over the situation in Mali under transitional leader Colonel Assimi Goita -- who took office in June after the country's second coup in less than a year -- and in particular over fears a commitment to hold elections in February is slipping.
A French government source who asked not to be named said intense activity had been noted as the deployment went ahead.
"We are seeing repeated air rotations with military transport planes belonging to the Russian army and installations at Bamako airport to allow the arrival of a significant number of mercenaries," said the source.
Also noted had been frequent visits by Wagner executives to Bamako and the activities by Russian geologists known for their association with Wagner, said the source.
Despite the deployment of Russian mercenaries, the statement from the 15 powers indicated they planned to remain engaged in Mali, saying "we will not give up our efforts to address the needs of the Malian population".
Mali is the epicentre of a militant insurgency that began in the north of the country in 2012 and spread three years later to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
France intervened in 2013 and now has roughly 5,000 troops in the region, but plans to lower that number to 2,500-3,000 by 2023.
French President Emmanuel Macron was due to raise concerns about the Wagner deployment on a visit to Mali this week to meet Goita for the first time.
However, his trip was scrapped with Paris blaming the Covid pandemic.
Paris has previously said any deployment of Wagner militia would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.