The Crossroads of Special Operations

Sunday, January 16, 2022

SOFX Original Article | Russia Denies Presence of Wagner Group in Mali, While West Africa Closes Its Borders | Steve Balestrieri, SOFX Contributing Editor

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A French military official speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said that there are currently 300-400 mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group operating in Mali. However, both the Malian military junta ruling the country and Russia have denied the presence of the mercenary group in Mali.

Malian officials have stated that there only Russian military trainers in country, helping the Malian military members learn about the equipment that they brought for the Malian military.

“I would say there are around 300-400 members of Wagner and there are also Russian trainers, who provide equipment,” the French official said during a Monday press briefing.

Meanwhile Russian News Agency Tass reported that the Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya said that Western complaints about Russian mercenaries are a “double standard.”

“The hysteria around a Russian private military company is another example of double standards because it is a well-known fact that Western countries have a monopoly on the market that offers such services,” he said during a UN Security Council meeting.

“Given the unexpected change in the French military presence in the country, which led to the shutdown of several key bases engaged in the fight against militants, Mali actually found itself alone face to face with terrorists,” he said.

“In this regard, we believe that Mali’s people have every right to interact with other partners willing to cooperate with them in strengthening security,” Nebenzya added.

The 15 member states of West Africa’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has imposed further sanctions on Mali for the second time in a year after the military junta had seized power in a coup. ECOWAS imposed sanctions last June after the second coup in 15 months removed members of the transitional government.

They then imposed further sanctions and shuttered their borders with Mali after the military junta, headed by Colonel Assimi Goita, announced that the promised February elections would be postponed for an additional five-year transition period.

Goita spoke on Mali state television and said that Mali is open for dialogue with ECOWAS to rescind the “inhumane” sanctions leveled at the government.

“Even if we regret the illegitimate, illegal and inhumane nature of certain decisions, Mali remains open to dialogue with the Economic Community of West African States to find a consensus,” Goita said on Monday.

“There is concern about the consequences of these measures, but I reassure you all that we are taking actions to face this challenge.”

France, Mali’s former colonial ruler has thousands of troops in the country in the semi-arid Sahel region fighting Islamic jihadists including terrorist groups aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). France has troops under “Operation Barkhane” as well as leading the Special Operations Task Force “Takuba” which consists of SOF troops from 16 countries and the European Union working by, with, and through local forces from the G5 Sahel which is comprised of the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.

The French ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Riviere, said that France will provide “full support for ECOWAS’s efforts.” He also slammed the deployment of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, who he characterized “are known to threaten civilians, loot resources, violate international law and the sovereignty of states”.

“We are in complete solidarity with the region and with this very courageous and clear stance” by ECOWAS, French President Emmanuel Macron said. The U.S. supported the ECOWAS and French effort to impose more sanctions on Mali, urging the junta to return to honor their vow to hold elections next month.

“A five-year transition is not in their interest and extends the pain of the people,” US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during the Security Council meeting.

However, Russia and China have blocked the United Nations Security Council from supporting the ECOWAS decision to impose new sanctions on Mali.

“We understand and are cognizant of the difficulties encountered by the Malian authorities in preparing for general elections,” Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.

“We concur with the fact that absent restoration of government control in many parts, regions of the country, it will be difficult to view the vote as legitimate.”

Mali’s issues began in 2012, when Tuareg separatists rebelled against the government. That rebellion was quickly hijacked by Islamic jihadist terror groups. France responded to the call by its former colony and by 2013 had pushed the jihadists to the edges of Mali’s territory.

But the jihadists regrouped and rearmed and have gradually taken back vast swaths of territory in the outlying areas of the country where the government has little presence. The French were upset when the military staged a coup in August 2020, led by Goita.

They installed a transitional government, but after a reshuffle of the Cabinet in May of last year deposed many of the military members in the most influential positions, the military junta staged a second coup and installed Goita as the president and the promised February elections were postponed for a further five years.

The French decided to gradually withdraw their troops and enlisted the help of the EU and the United States. But Mali’s rulers went to Russia and to the Wagner Group, who have been sanctioned by the EU. That is a red-line for France and much of the European governments. Which further throws Mali into uncertainty.

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