Malian military officials said, on Friday, that Russian military advisers have arrived in Mali in recent weeks, amid tensions with Western powers over the alleged involvement of Russian mercenaries in the country.
A Malian army officer, who asked not to be named, said about 400 Russian soldiers may be serving in Sahel state, which is struggling to quell a decade-old Islamist insurgency.
Another officer, who asked not to be named, said Russian advisers were in “several parts of Mali”.
The Russian presence will heighten suspicion that the military-dominated government in Mali is employing mercenaries from Russia’s controversial Wagner Group.
In late December, 15 Western countries condemned the alleged deployment of Wagner fighters in Mali and accused Moscow, in a statement, of providing them with material support.
But the Malian government denied the deployment of any mercenaries in the country, adding that “Russian trainers” are on the ground to enhance the operational capacity of the security forces.
Mali is the epicenter of the jihadist insurgency that began in the north of the country in 2012 and spread three years later to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.
France intervened in 2013 and now has approximately 5,000 troops in the region, but plans to reduce that number to 2,500 to 3,000 by 2023.
The French army recently handed over three military bases in northern Mali to government forces as part of the withdrawal, including most recently in the desert city of Timbuktu.
Russian advisors have since arrived in Timbuktu since the French left on December 14, according to an officer of the Malian army.
Paris had said earlier that any deployment of the Wagner militia would conflict with the presence of French forces.
There has been growing international concern about the situation in Mali since Colonel Asimi Gueta launched a military coup in August 2020, ousting elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under pressure from France and Mali’s neighbors, Gueta pledged to return Mali to civilian rule in February after presidential and legislative elections.
But he launched a second de facto coup d’état in May 2021, forcing an interim civilian government to disrupt the schedule.
France announced a troop drawdown following the second coup d’état. Mali’s ruling military then considered hiring Wagner’s paramilitary militia for support, which raised tensions.
A Western security official, an African diplomat in the Malian capital Bamako and a Malian elected official – all of whom declined to be named – told AFP that Russian “mercenaries” are currently in Mali.
The Western security official, for example, said that “several hundred Russian mercenaries” from the Wagner Group had been deployed to the center and north of the country.
However, a Malian army officer who spoke to AFP insisted that only Russian military advisers were deployed in Mali.
“You’re talking about mercenaries,” said the officer, “that’s your business. For us, they are Russian advisers.”
But an elected official in central Mali, who asked not to be named, said there were Russian advisers and mercenaries on the ground.
The official also noted that not all mercenaries are Russian nationals.
On Friday, a senior French diplomat said the Wagner Group’s alleged activity in Mali was still being evaluated.
“It is still unacceptable to deploy Wagner to Mali,” the diplomat said, adding that the group’s presence creates security risks.
“The problem we have in Mali is primarily a political problem,” he said.
“There is a military junta that has staged a coup, exercises power illegally and resorts, to save itself, to the services of Wagner.”