France is to reorganize its counter-terrorism operation in West Africa, according to foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in the wake of a coup d’état in Mali and the arrival of Russian mercenaries to support the junta.
“We are going to reorganize to ensure the continuation of the fight against terrorism,” he told France 5 television late on Monday, adding that President Emmanuel Macron wanted forces to be redeployed but to remain in the West African Sahel region.
“If the conditions are no longer there for us to operate in Mali – and that is clearly the case – we’ll continue to fight terrorism next door with the Sahel countries which definitely want us to do so,” Le Drian said, although he stopped short of announcing an immediate full withdrawal.
Isis and al-Qaeda-linked groups control large parts of central and northern Mali, which jihadis briefly captured in late 2012, prompting a French military intervention that has become increasingly unpopular as violence has spread across the country and into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. Thousands have been killed and millions displaced across the Sahel.
Relations between Paris and Bamako have deteriorated sharply since Assimi Goita led a coup that overthrew the democratically elected government in August 2020 and then seized complete control in a second coup in May 2021, ousting interim civilian leaders who were seen as close to France.
Macron announced in July last year that France would halve its 5,000-strong force fighting Islamists in the Sahel as part of his attempt to avoid “infinite war” in the region.
Mali’s rulers have criticized the French drawdown as “abandonment” but at the same time was highly critical of France and a multinational special forces group called Takuba – set up by Paris to pursue the war against insurgents – for infringing its sovereignty.
Mali’s west African neighbors and the EU imposed severe economic sanctions on the country after the interim government proposed holding on to power until the 2025 elections.
Denmark began withdrawing its special forces last month after being ordered to do so by Mali, and all western military operations in Mali are now in doubt.
Le Drian said there were now 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner group in Mali, a country “run today by five colonels who have taken power”. He said: “It’s the junta that has cut itself off and lost the plot and which must accept the consequences.” Wagner mercenaries have been accused by the UN of gross human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Libya and the Central African Republic.
Mali’s August coup was the first in a string of putsches across west and central Africa as soldiers seized power in Chad, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
Additional reporting by Neil Munshi in Lagos