Mali’s army spokesperson has said Russian soldiers have deployed to the northern city of Timbuktu to train Malian forces at a base vacated by French troops last month amid persistent insecurity in a country where large swaths of territory are out of the government’s control.
The Malian government said late last year that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided few details on the deployment, including on how many soldiers are involved or the Russian troops’ precise mission.
On December 23, a group of Western countries led by former colonial power France, which in 2013 intervened militarily to help push back advancing armed groups that threatened to seize the whole of Mali, sharply criticised what they said was the deployment of Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner Group.
Mali’s government has denied this, saying the Russian troops are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement.
“We had new acquisitions of planes and equipment from them [the Russians],” the Mali army spokesperson told Reuters on Thursday. “It costs a lot less to train us on site than for us to go over there … What is the harm?”
He did not say how many Russians had been sent to Timbuktu.
Residents told Reuters that uniformed Russian men were seen driving around town but could not say how many there were.
The Russian forces’ arrival in Mali follows deployments to several other African hotspots, part of what analysts say is an attempt by Moscow to recover 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 as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012, but devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the central and northern regions.
Fighting has spread to neighbouring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, with the deteriorating security situation in the region unleashing an acute humanitarian crisis.
The withdrawal of French troops from Timbuktu, a city they helped to recapture from al-Qaeda fighters in 2013, is part of a significant drawdown of a previously 5,000-strong task force in West Africa’s Sahel region. The French government said it would refocus its military efforts on neutralising rebel operations, and strengthening and training local armies.
The decision came amid mounting 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 committed to holding elections by the end of February 2022, but has now proposed a transition period lasting between six months and five years.
The reports over the Wagner deployment in recent months has further strained already tense ties between the French government and the coup makers. The rising tensions have also come at a time when anti-French sentiment has become widely popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the escalating violence and pursuing a hidden agenda.
The French military already has shut down its bases further north in Kidal and Tessalit but is maintaining its presence in Gao near a volatile border region where operations have been concentrated in recent years.