Army spokesman says Russian troops are in the northern city to train Malian troops.
Mali’s army spokesman said Russian troops had deployed to the northern city of Timbuktu to train Malian forces at a base evacuated by French troops last month amid continuing insecurity in a country where large parts of the territory are out of government control.
The Malian government said late last year that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided little details about the deployment, including how many soldiers are involved or the Russian troops’ exact mission.
On December 23, a group of Western countries led by the former colonial power France, which intervened militarily in 2013 to help repel advancing armed groups that threatened to occupy the whole of Mali, sharply criticized what they said was the deployment of Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner group.
Mali’s government has denied this, saying Russian troops are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement.
“We have new acquisitions of aircraft and equipment Of them [the Russians]”Mali army spokesman told Reuters on Thursday. “It costs much less to train us on the site than for us to go there… What is the damage?”
He did not say how many Russians were sent to Timbuktu.
Residents told Reuters Russian men were seen in uniform driving around the city but could not say how many there were.
The arrival of Russian forces in Mali follows the deployment of several other African hotspots, part of which analysts say is an attempt by Moscow to restore influence on the continent after a long absence following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Mali has been plagued by a conflict that began in 2012 as a separatist movement in the north of the country, but has degenerated into a multitude of armed groups rushing for control in the central and northern regions.
Fighting has spread to neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, with the deteriorating security situation in the region triggering an acute humanitarian crisis.
The withdrawal of French troops from Timbuktu, a city that helped them recapture al-Qaeda fighters in 2013, is part of a significant withdrawal of a previously 5,000-strong task force in West Africa’s Sahel. region. The French government has said it will refocus its military efforts on neutralizing rebel operations, and strengthening and training local armies.
The decision came amid growing political instability in Mali, where Colonel Assimi Goita carried out two coups in less than a year before being sworn in as the country’s interim president. The military-dominated government initially pledged to hold elections by the end of February 2022, but has now a transition period proposed lasts between six months and five years.
Reports of the Wagner deployment in recent months have already strained tensions between the French government and the coup plotters. The rising tension also came at a time when anti-French sentiment was becoming widely popular among Malians who accused Paris of not curbing the growing violence and pursuing a hidden agenda.
The French army has already closed its bases further north in Kidal and Tessalit, but maintains its presence in Gao near a volatile border region where operations have been concentrated for the past few years.