France, 13 European countries and Canada denounced “the deployment of mercenary troops” linked to Russia in the west African country of Mali as the government there battles Islamist militants who have killed thousands and displaced millions across the Sahel.
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the countries also called on Russia to “revert to a responsible and constructive behaviour in the region”.
The security situation has deteriorated in Mali since June when France announced the drawdown of its forces there after a seven-year campaign known as Operation Barkhane failed to eradicate the jihadi threat in the Sahel region.
French president Emmanuel Macron justified the decision by saying that France’s military, which has suffered 53 deaths in the region, can no longer compensate for the “non-work” of the Malian state. There have also been two coups d’état in the capital Bamako in less than a year, which has further strained relations between France and Mali, its former colony.
Malian government officials have criticised the French for a strategy they say has worsened the conflict and for their decision to halve their 5,000-strong military presence.
After the French troop drawdown, Bamako began negotiations to hire mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked private security Wagner Group, which is under US and EU sanctions.
Wagner is not a legal entity but a group of connected companies reportedly linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, the Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef”. Its fighters have been accused of war crimes and human rights violations in Libya and the Central African Republic.
In a written response, Concord, Prigozhin’s group, cited the businessman as saying that he has nothing to do with any paramilitary group.
He added that “there is no evidence of the presence of any Russian armed formations in Mali, and there is no trace of Russian citizens other than those who bring humanitarian aid and engage in military and technical cooperation”.
With regards the CAR, Prigozhin said he had never visited the country, but that Russian instructors there had dramatically turned round the situation, and said that UN reports of misconduct by instructors were fake.
In the statement, he called on European leaders to “take off your expensive suits, go to Mali or CAR and live there for a week. If you survive, you have the right to discuss the fate of those countries.”
France and the other countries said they “deeply regret the choice of the Malian transitional authorities to use scarce public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the Malian Armed Forces and public services to the benefit of the Malian people”.
France’s Operation Barkhane began in 2013 with the aim of ejecting al-Qaeda allies from the Malian city of Timbuktu. But the conflict has since broadened across several countries such as Niger and Chad as multiple armed groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and Isis have mounted attacks on civilian and military targets.
After meeting his Malian counterpart in Moscow last month, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin had no connection to the mercenary deal but that Mali was within its rights to hire Russian fighters. “If they sign agreements with the lawful governments of sovereign states, I don’t see anything negative in this,” he said.
The statement was issued by France, UK, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania and Sweden.