Mali plans to hire private Russian mercenaries to assist with security in the country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday.
“Given the external support has been diminished from those who assumed an obligation to help eradicate terrorism there, they have turned to a private Russian military company,” Lavrov said at a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters in New York, referencing a French plan to draw down its own military presence in Mali.
Russia is also contributing to Mali’s defense on a state level, providing military and technical equipment, he said.
Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga has argued for the country’s need for a new security strategy, citing rampant terrorism and other forms of criminal violence in his address Saturday to the UN General Assembly.
Mali’s population is at a breaking point, he said, faced with “mass killings, villages razed and innocents cut down, in which women and their babies are often burned alive.”
Maiga also accused France of abandoning his country with the “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops, and said his government was now justified to “seek other partners.”
France has long been a major security provider in the region. According to the French Ministry of Defense, as of September, France had 5,100 troops deployed across five countries in the Sahel region: Chad, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
But French President Emmanuel Macron announced in June 2021 an end to the current French deployment in the Sahel region, Operation Barkhane, with a gradual handover to a multilateral mission.
The incoming international effort will be spearheaded by the Takuba Task Force, a European military task force led by France which advises, assists and accompanies Malian Armed Forces in the Sahel, according to the French president.
France has already raised concerns over the potential presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali, during a conversation between Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian earlier this week on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
“The minister alerted his Russian counterpart to the grave consequences of involving the Wagner group in the country,” a statement from the French foreign ministry read.
The Wagner group is a secretive Russian military contractor thought to be connected to – and financed by – Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch so close to the Kremlin that he is known as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.”
Known to operate in Libya, the Central African Republic, Syria and Mozambique, Wagner soldiers for hire have been repeatedly accused of bloody human rights violations.
Mali’s transitional government did not respond to request for comment.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Johnny Hallam in Atlanta.