German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned Wednesday (14 April) that European forces would not cooperate with Mali’s military while maintaining links to Russia during a visit to the conflict-torn Sahel state.
At a news conference in the capital Bamako, Baerbock said she feared “massive war crimes” were being committed against Malian civilians, which she suggested followed a pattern used by Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia has supplied what are officially described as military instructors to Mali.
But the United States, France, and others, say the instructors are operatives from the Russian private-security firm Wagner.
The shadowy organisation has long been suspected to be the Kremlin’s paramilitary arm.
The alleged presence of Wagner operatives and delayed elections has driven a wedge between the country’s army-dominated government and Western countries.
On Monday, the EU decided to halt its military training mission in Mali citing insufficient guarantees from Mali over Wagner.
Baerbock said during Wednesday’s news conference: “We cannot continue the cooperation without demarcation from the Russian forces”.
Some 300 German soldiers participate in the European Union Training Mission in Mali.
However, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop suggested that Baerbock unfairly compared events in Mali and Ukraine.
“We must not confuse things,” he said, adding that Mali was not involved in the war in Ukraine.
Diop added that Mali’s foreign partners should respect the country’s choices.
An impoverished nation of 21 million people, Mali has been wracked by Islamist violence over the past decade. Swathes of the country are in thrall to myriad rebel groups and militias.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes.
Mali’s under-equipped army has often been accused of committing abuses during the brutal conflict.
Three Germans suspected of “terrorism” in Mali were released meanwhile, a German government spokesman said Wednesday, amid Baerbock’s visit.
– Alleged massacre –
There are allegations that Malian troops — in coordination with foreign fighters — massacred hundreds of civilians in late March.
Mali’s army said on April 1 that it had killed 203 militants during a military operation in Moura in the centre of the country. However, the announcement followed social media reports of a civilian massacre in the town.
Human Rights Watch later released a report alleging that Malian troops accompanied by white, non-French-speaking foreign fighters killed about 300 civilians in Moura.
Mali, which a military junta has governed since a coup in 2020, has opened an investigation into the affair.
The army-dominated government regularly defends the rights record of the military, however. It has also repeatedly denied hiring Wagner operatives.
“Mali has a state-to-state relationship with Russia,” Foreign Minister Diop said on Wednesday.
The country’s junta also sparked international anger after reneging on a promise to stage elections in February this year.
West Africa bloc ECOWAS has imposed sanctions on Mali, including a trade embargo, over the delayed return to civilian rule.