The French military has no intention of leaving the West African nation of Mali, France's ambassador to Estonia told ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) on Thursday. Estonia contributes military personnel to the French-led Operation Barkhane, while tensions have arisen recently following reports the Malian leadership has been in consultation with a Russian private security firm.
The French Ambassador to Estonia Eric Lamuroux told AK that: "I can confirm that France does not intend to leave either Mali, or the Sahel region as a whole.
"In Mali in particular, the base in the north in three regions is being gradually handed over to the Malian government, in accordance with a fixed timetable," M. Lamuroux said, also noting that French cooperation with the government of Mali will not be feasible if the latter officially works with Wagner, the Russian private security firm in question.
"[Wagner] are known to be responsible, for example, for committing violent acts against peaceful people, for taking control of natural or economic resources, and for ongoing actions the local populace," the ambassador added, reiterating that France would not be leaving Mali.
The transfer of authority to the Malian government would be gradual and in accordance with previous agreements, he said.
Around a hundred Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) personnel serve in Mali on a rotational basis in a mission which has been ongoing for seven years. An infantry platoon forms the core of the deployment and is augmented by support personnel. Some EDF special forces personnel have also been active in Mali.
The EDF personnel are based in the western city of Gao and are primarily tasked with patrols and training missions. They also conduct some community outreach at local schools, AK reported.
Maj. Rauno Viitmann, commander of the EDF unit in Mali told AK that: " Daily operations will continue as planned, regardless of the winds of change or agreements between different countries or organizations."
Relations between the current Malian government – the country has seen two recent military coups – became strained after Malian authorities accused the French of abandoning the country. They then entered negotiations with Wagner Group, a Russian firm which hires mercenaries who have reportedly been involved in various recent conflicts, including in eastern Ukraine and in Syria.
Speaking at last Saturday's UN General Assembly in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used the term "private military company" in connection to Wagner, for the first time publicly.
Estonia's defense minister, Kalle Laanet (Reform) said last week that EDF personnel would be withdrawn from Mali if the government of that country were to work with Wagner.
Also appearing on AK via video link, Ilya Barabanov, journalist with the BBC's Russian-language service, said that Wagner-hired personnel are already on the ground in Mali.
Barabanov said: "All kinds of specialists are already being recruited in Mali. Doctors, drivers and is being recruited. Based on past experience in the Central African Republic and Syria, we know that most of these are military personnel."
Barabanov also noted that mercenary work is illegal in Russia itself.
The French-led Operation Barkhane covers a vast swathe of territory comprising countries which are mostly former French colonies, including Chad and Mauritania, as well as Mali.
Its main aims are to counter human trafficking and terrorism.
The most recent EDF platoon to serve on rotation arrived this month.
Editor: Andrew Whyte