In Mali, Wagner mercenaries advance in the center of the country

There is no longer any doubt. Russian mercenaries affiliated with the private company Wagner are being deployed in Mali, and more particularly in the center of the country. While on Christmas Eve they were estimated at only forty individuals stationed on an air base backed by the airport of the capital, Bamako, their numbers now reach 300 to 350 men, who have progressed to Timbuktu , according to several French and local sources.

It was at the turn of the explosion of an explosive device as a vehicle passed, then a clash with jihadists, that the presence of these paramilitaries was identified in the center of the country. This attack would have taken place on January 3 south of Mopti, between Bankass and Bandiagara, causing several deaths on the jihadist side and at least one injured on the side of the Wagner Group, according to France 24 journalist Wassim Nasr. A toll which would have increased, Thursday, January 6, to at least one dead and two injured among the Wagner, according to our information.

At this stage, however, there are still ambiguities about the status of this contingent: some could be simple Russian soldiers. But in accordance with its custom, Moscow remains silent while the Malian authorities continue to deny any contract with the Wagner Group. On January 5, the Malian army only confirmed that “Russian soldiers” had arrived in Timbuktu. At the end of December, a spokesperson for the transitional government also explained that “Russian instructors” were present in Mali.

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Cohabitation with Minusma

The growing proportion of the workforce linked to the Wagner Group in Mali is however certain, say the sources interviewed by The world. “There is no doubt that the conveyor belt is moving forward with more and more people on it”, specifies one of them, now evoking “A significant footprint”. As they have already done in the Central African Republic, it is in the combat support of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) that the 300 to 350 Russian-speakers identified could now be involved – mainly in Ségou, Mopti and Sévaré, where their number would reach around 200. A few dozen men would also be deployed in Timbuktu. An area where the blue helmets of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) are present, which directly poses the problem of cohabitation between these two international forces with very different objectives, principles and rules of engagement .

The men of the Wagner Group and the possible Russian instructors alongside the FAMa would have arrived in Mali in small quantities since mid-December by air. But according to the sources interviewed, they did not go through the usual border controls at Bamako airport and were disembarked discreetly at the end of the runway, hence their uncertain identification. It was then by road that they were gradually transported to central Mali despite the official denials of the Malian authorities.

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First observed, in December, in Bamako, but also in “peripheral areas” such as those of Nara or Sikasso, the precursors of Wagner therefore moved towards the center of Mali, more exposed to the fighting and more visible. in the eyes of observers. It is thus in the heart of the Dogon country that the confrontation between jihadists and the Russian military or paramilitaries took place. An area where the Katiba Macina, affiliated with the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), itself linked to Al-Qaida, maintains its hold outside the cities and plays into conflicts between Fulani and Dogon communities.

The deployment of Wagner’s men or Russian soldiers in this region is therefore anything but trivial. Without ever assuming it, the Malian central power has abandoned central Mali in recent years, delegating part of the security to local self-defense militias, regularly accused of abuses. At the same time, France has always carefully avoided engaging the soldiers of Operation “Barkhane” in this area.

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“Line of anger”

The Malian junta, which took power after a coup d’état in August 2020, would it be tempted here to achieve a coup, hoping for the start of military reconquest, at a time when the pressures, external as internal, are accentuated? If they have managed to attract a certain local popularity, by launching very opportunely prosecutions against personalities from previous regimes, the transitional authorities are now trying to make the bet of postponing the presidential election to the end of February 2022 – the scheduled date. in which nobody believes any more – in the distant deadline of January 2026. Most of the Malian political parties have already rejected this manifest intention to retain power and the countries or organizations involved in the country are annoyed and worried about the degradation of the situation in Mali, which has already had a serious impact on its neighbors.

All eyes are now focused on the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to be held on January 9. While the emissaries of the Malian transitional government have, in recent days, toured the capitals of the region to present their new calendar, “A line of anger” is emerging among West African heads of state, reports a French source. “Even those who were the most reluctant to strengthen sanctions, like the Togolese, see that they have reached the end of their logic”, says the latter.

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After having pronounced travel bans against many members of the current Malian power, ECOWAS could thus impose a border blockade and request the freezing of Mali’s accounts at the Central Bank of West African States. Extreme measures which could also lead to the collapse of the fragile Malian economy and push part of the population to nationalist reflexes. “Everyone within ECOWAS is angry with the Malian authorities after the calendar provocation. The time has surely come to remind them that they are locking themselves into a dangerous logic ”, however warns a foreign observer in Bamako.

The advance of the Wagner Group in Mali is also problematic for France. On paper, Russian and French forces do not coexist. Some 300 to 400 kilometers separate Timbuktu or Mopti from Gao, where “Barkhane” has kept its main base. But the French soldiers also provide combat support for the Malian army. A paradoxical situation when political contacts have stalled with the government in Bamako. “We will not be able to continue these operations indefinitely if ECOWAS acts that we no longer have common political objectives”, judges a French decision-maker, aware of the impossibility in the long term to maintain a fraternity of arms with a country which Paris also pushes to sanction the rulers.

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In Mali, Wagner mercenaries advance in the center of the country