Mali has the right to seek military support from whoever it wants, the prime minister said, after France and other foreign powers expressed alarm at a report that Bamako was approaching Russian mercenaries for assistance.
Prime Minister Choguel Maiga did not confirm whether the government was in talks with any other party in his comments that were released by a Malian news site, but diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters Mali's government was close to a deal with a private Russian military contractor.
The sources said Russia’s the Wagner Group would supply mercenaries to train Mali's military and protect senior officials, based on the deal being negotiated.
France has said such a move would be incompatible with its military presence in Mali, where Malian, French and European forces, alongside UN peacekeepers, have been battling insurgents linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tuesday criticized plans that would bring Russian mercenaries into Mali, saying such a move was “incompatible” with the French military presence in the country.
Paris is worried the arrival of any Russian contractors would undermine its counter-terrorism operation in West Africa's Sahel region as it scales down a 5,000-strong mission and reshapes it with more European allies, diplomatic sources say.
Le Drian pointed to the abuses and “all sorts of violations” carried out by the group’s mercenaries in Syria and Central African Republic, stressing that they “do not correspond with any solution.”
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said she was “extremely concerned” by such a deal.
“It is incoherent with everything that we have done for years and we intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region,” she said.