Russian military advisers have arrived in Mali in recent weeks, Malian army officials said Friday, amid tensions with Western powers over the alleged involvement of Russian mercenaries in the country.
One Malian army officer, who requested anonymity, said that about 400 Russian military personnel may be operating in the Sahel state, which is struggling to quell a decade-long extremist insurgency.
Another officer, who also declined to be named, said that Russian advisers were present in “several parts of Mali.”
The Russian presence will fuel suspicions that the Malian government has hired mercenaries from Russia’s controversial Wagner group.
In late December, 15 Western countries condemned the alleged deployment of Wagner fighters to Mali and accused Moscow, in a statement, of providing them with material backing.
But Mali’s government denied that any mercenaries had deployed to the country, adding that “Russian trainers” were on the ground to bolster the operational capacity of its security forces.
Mali is the epicenter of an extremist 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 roughly 5,000 troops in the region, but plans to lower that number to 2,500-3,000 by 2023.
Paris has previously said any deployment of Wagner militia would be incompatible with the presence of French troops.
A Western security official, an African diplomat in Mali’s capital Bamako and a Malian elected official – all of whom declined to be named – told AFP that Russian “mercenaries” were currently in Mali.
The Western security official, for instance, said “several hundred Russian mercenaries” from the Wagner group had been deployed in the center and north of the country.
However, one of the Malian army officers insisted that only Russian military advisors had been deployed.
“You talk about mercenaries, that’s your business. For us, they are Russian advisors,” the officer said.
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