General Salifou Mody, one of the Niger officers who seized power in a military coup last week, visited Mali on Wednesday, according to the Mali presidency, amid speculation of a possible interest in the Wagner mercenary group, which has a presence in the country.
Mali’s transitional president, Assimi Goïta, hosted Mody and a large Nigerien military delegation on Wednesday, according to pictures and a statement posted on Facebook by the Mali presidency.
Mody called the meeting “part of a complex regional context,” the Mali presidency said, and thanked Malian authorities “for their support and accompaniment since the seizure of power by the CNSP,” referring to the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland where Mody is vice president.
Hundreds of Wagner contractors are stationed in Mali at the invitation of the country’s military junta, to quell an Islamist insurgency brewing in an area where the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet.
Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin last week celebrated the coup in the landlocked West African country, saying his private military company could also help with situations like the one unfolding in Niger.
The dramatic ouster of Niger’s President Bazoum last week alarmed Western leaders, including the US and France, which are both key stakeholders in Niger’s crackdown on local Islamist insurgencies.
US officials have warned that the Russian mercenary group could now seek new opportunities in Niger. “I would not be surprised to see Wagner attempt to exploit this situation to their own advantage as they’ve attempted to exploit other situations in Africa to their own advantage,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Wednesday.
Miller added that “any attempt by the military leaders in Niger to bring the Wagner forces into Niger would be a sign, yet another sign that they do not have the best interests of the Nigerien people at heart.”
A number of CNN investigations, and others by human rights groups, have established Wagner’s involvement in and complicity with atrocities against civilian populations in Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic, where they have been employed to assist local defense forces against rebellions and insurgencies, and suppress opposition.
The coup has provoked a split reaction from countries in the Sahel region, where the threat of militant extremism in recent years has destabilized local governments and led to volatility.
On Monday, Mali and Burkina Faso’s governments said they would consider any military intervention “an act of war” against them and put their armies on standby.
Mali presidency’s statement said General Mody told his host he had come to explore “ways and means to strengthen our security cooperation, at a time when some countries are planning to intervene militarily in our country.”
The statement comes after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Sunday threatened to use force if Niger’s ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum, was not reinstated within one week.
ECOWAS also imposed a travel ban and asset freeze for the military officials involved in the coup attempt, as well as for their family members and civilians who accept to participate in any institutions or government established by the officials.
Burkina Faso and Mali expressed their solidarity with Nigerien authorities and said they would not participate in any measures against Niger by ECOWAS, calling the sanctions “illegal, illegitimate and inhuman.” Guinea also expressed its solidarity with Niger on Monday.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Christian Sierra and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.