OUAGADOUGOU (Times Of Ocean)- Although France’s counter-terrorism mission will be withdrawn, France will continue to provide aerial military support to Malian forces battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel. However, this will only be done where Russian fighters are not present, military commander said.
Former colonial power France announced last month that it would pull out 2,400 soldiers first deployed to Mali almost a decade ago, after a deterioration of relations with the ruling military junta.
In February, tensions arose over the junta’s decision to delay elections and its collaboration with private contractors belonging to Russia’s Wagner group.
General Laurent Michon, commander of Operation Barkhane, told a press conference in Burkina Faso that France would continue to provide aerial support in areas free of “Russian mercenaries.”
“We will continue to help via air by training people on the ground who are capable of calling planes, of guiding them,” he said, adding that similar support would be offered to soldiers in Burkina Faso and Niger, which also shares a border with Mali.
Mali’s military spokesman did not respond to calls for comment.
The country has been struggling to hold back insurgents with ties to al Qaeda since they seized its desert north in 2012, which prompted France to send troops to push them back the following year.
Recently, the militants, now also affiliated with the Islamic State, regrouped and seized swathes of countryside despite the presence of foreign troops and UN peacekeepers.
French withdrawal could undermine efforts to quell violence that has spread to Niger, Burkina Faso, and other neighbouring countries, killing thousands and displacing millions.
Burkinabe militants attacked an informal gold mine site in the northern province of Seno, which borders Niger, on Friday, killing at least 10 people and wounding several others, a local government official and a military source said.
To withdraw its troops from Mali, Operation Barkhane will take four to six months.
The European Union has imposed sanctions against the Wagner Group for clandestine operations on behalf of the Kremlin.
Although more than a dozen sources with links to the group previously told Reuters that it had carried out clandestine combat missions for Russia in Ukraine, Libya and Syria, Vladimir Putin said there were no ties between Wagner and his government.
A January estimate put the number of Russian mercenaries operating in Mali between 300 and 400, while Sweden places it at about 800.