January 06, 2022 17:56 GMT – By RFE/RL
Russian soldiers have deployed to the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali to train Malian forces at a base vacated by French troops last month, Mali’s army spokesperson said on January 6.
Mali’s government said last month that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided few details on the deployment, including the number of deployed Russians.
Last month, over a dozen Western countries strongly condemned the deployment in Mali of Russian mercenaries working for the Vagner group, accusing Moscow of providing material backing for the fighters.
The countries, who included, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, said the deployment can deteriorate the security and human rights situation in Mali.
The U.S. State Department said last month hat Vagner Group forces “will not bring peace to Mali, but rather will destabilize the country further.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Vagner Group does not represent the Russian state and is not paid by it. He has also said private military contractors have the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.
Mali’s government has denied any deployment of Russian mercenaries, saying “Russian trainers” are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement.
“We had new acquisitions of planes and equipment from [the Russians],” the Malian Army spokesperson told Reuters. “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.
Local residents told Reuters that uniformed Russian men were seen driving around town.
There was no immediate comment from Russian officials.
France helped to recapture Timbuktu from Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2013. France’s withdrawal from the city is part of a significant drawdown of a previously 5,000-strong task force in West Africa’s Sahel region sent to battle jihadist groups.
Mali has experienced sustained political instability since 2012. A military transitional government took power in May.