Blinken warns Russia’s Wagner group against Mali meddling
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday warned the shadowy Russian mercenary group Wagner over involvement in Mali as he pressed for a civilian transition in the troubled country.
Speaking during his visit to neighbouring Senegal, Blinken said the United States was “contributing to efforts with Mali and partners in support of stability” in the war-ravaged country.
“I would only add that I think it would be especially unfortunate if outside actors engage in making things even more difficult and more complicated, and I’m thinking particularly of groups like the Wagner Group in Mali,” he said.
The private military outfit, which Western capitals believe is closely linked to the Kremlin, has been tied to conflicts in Ukraine, as well as different parts of Africa and the Middle East.
France has been spearheading moves to target Wagner after its reported deal with Mali’s military junta to send 1,000 contractors to help in a longstanding conflict with jihadists.
West African regional group ECOWAS earlier this month slapped sanctions on individual members of the military junta there.
Blinken said that he agreed with Senegalese leaders on holding Mali to a timeline set by ECOWAS of holding elections next year — and said Mali would have incentives from the United States.
“We look forward to taking the necessary steps to resume the full array of assistance as soon as this democratically elected government takes office,” Blinken said.
“But it has to put itself on the track of transition as laid out by ECOWAS,” he said.
– ‘Grave concerns’ –
Russia earlier this month pledged to continue military cooperation with Mali but denied links with contractors in the country.
“If those contracts are concluded with legitimate governments of sovereign states, I don’t understand what can be seen as negative about that,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Wagner Group has been accused of violent harassment and sexual abuse, especially in the Central African Republic where the mercenaries have worked closely with the army and police.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also voiced “grave concerns” about the Wagner Group’s reported deployment to Mali during a trip to West Africa last month.
She said that mercenaries “engage in human rights abuses of civilians, extract steep costs in payments and mineral concessions, and deprive local citizens of critically needed resources”.