France halts Mali development aid over Russia paramilitary ties

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France is halting its development aid to Mali, three months after finalizing its pullout of anti-extremist forces from the country, over Bamako’s alleged hiring of paramilitaries from the Russian group Wagner, the foreign ministry said Thursday.

“Given the attitude of Mali’s junta leader, allied with the Russian mercenaries of Wagner, we have suspended our public development aid to Mali,” a ministry source said.

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But France will maintain its humanitarian aid as well as financing for “civil society organizations,” the source said.

Relations between France and its former colony have soured since a military coup two years ago, and the new junta led by Assimi Goita has shunned Paris in favor of deeper relations with Russia – though his government denies hiring Wagner.

France responded this year by withdrawing the forces in its Barkhane operation to aid five Sahel nations fight extremist insurgencies, and has since announced a strategic review of its military presence in West Africa.

The French development funding agency AFD has provided Mali with total grants of 310 billion CFA francs ($488 million) between January 2013 and September 2017, according to figures on the website of France’s Mali embassy.

Aid groups and NGOs warned the funding cut could have devastating effects on efforts to alleviate poverty for millions of people.

Several charities including Doctors of the World and Handicap International have warned French President Emmanuel Macron that 7.5 million Malians need assistance, “more than 35 percent of the country’s population.”

“The end of this financing will stop essential, even vital activities... to help poor and vulnerable communities,” they wrote in a letter this week seen by AFP.

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