French ministers warned Mali on Tuesday against striking a deal with Russian private security group Wagner amid claims the West African country's military junta is close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries from the controversial firm.
Diplomatic and security sources say Mali's military rulers are nearing a deal with the Russian paramilitary group, underlining Moscow's growing influence in the region and triggering fierce opposition from former colonial power France, which has spent eight years fighting terrorism in the troubled Sahel.
Asked by lawmakers about the reports, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Wagner is a militia that has shown itself in the past in Syria and Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations that do not correspond with any solution and so it is incompatible with our presence."
"I am saying this so that it is heard," Le Drian added.
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told a separate hearing that she was "extremely concerned" by such a deal.
A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region told Reuters that at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved. Two other sources believed the number was lower, but did not provide figures.
Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about 6 billion CFA francs (€9m/$10.8m) a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train Malian military and provide protection for senior officials.
If the sources are correct, it would be a "bombshell revelation", said FRANCE 24's senior reporter Cyril Payen.
"The French are receding, they're leaving, especially northern Mali; this is Operation Barkhane [which has] more than 5,000 troops in Mali - so the game is between superpowers where let's say Moscow is sending these guys on the ground when France is leaving," Payen continued.
"This is exactly the same experience in the Central African Republic at the border with Chad and the mercenaries of Wagner," said Payen. "They are renowned because they are working in Ukraine, in Sudan and many places where they train in secrecy, they live in secrecy... It's extremely difficult to talk to these people to know exactly who they are and what is their purpose - and they also die in secrecy."
Potential threat to counter-terrorism
France's diplomatic offensive includes enlisting the help of partners such as the United States to persuade Mali's junta not to press ahead with the deal, and sending senior diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks.
The French foreign ministry's top Africa diplomat, Christophe Bigot, was dispatched to Moscow for talks on September 8 with Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin's point person on the Middle East and Africa. France's foreign ministry has declined to comment on the visit.
French diplomats have warned that the presence of Russian mercenaries presence would jeopardise Mali's funding from its international partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild Mali's army.
Paris is worried the arrival of Russian mercenaries will undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State group-linked insurgents in the region at a time when it is seeking to draw down its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with other European partners.
Speaking to Reuters, a French diplomatic source criticised interventions by the Wagner Group in other countries.
"An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts carried out by Mali's Sahelian and international partners engaged in the Coalition for the Sahel for security and development of the region," the source said.
Malian sources, meanwhile, have not denied the talks with Wagner, though stressing that no decision has been made yet.
"Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country," a spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry told AFP on Tuesday. "We haven't signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone."
Franco-Russian rivalry in Africa
Having Russian mercenaries in Mali would strengthen Moscow's push for global prestige and influence, and be part of a wider campaign to shake up long-standing power dynamics in Africa.
More than a dozen people with ties to the Wagner Group have previously told Reuters it has carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin's behalf in Ukraine, Libya and Syria. Russian authorities deny Wagner contractors carry out their orders.
As relations with France have worsened, Mali's military junta has increased contacts with Russia, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and overseeing tank exercises on September 4.
A senior Malian defence ministry source said the visit was in "the framework of cooperation and military assistance" and gave no further details. Russia's defence ministry said deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin had met Camara during an international military forum and "discussed defence cooperation projects in detail as well as regional security matters related to West Africa". No further details were released.
"[The Russians] try to fill the gap to counter geopolitically French influence in West Africa," said FRANCE 24's Payen. "In the [neighbouring] Central African Republic, there is really a proxy war in the field because Wagner is taking care of the presidential security against the French, so it's contaminating the relations between the two countries."
"It's turned very nasty on the ground between Russian and French diplomats," Payen continued. "The idea is just to grab power for not too much because Wagner is used to, for example, taking care of mining companies to get money from the governments and France is not doing the same."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)