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23rd May 2022

Defence ministers meet on Mali amid Russia tensions

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (c) in Bamako last April (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)
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EU countries are intensifying talks on how to deal with an increasingly hostile junta in Mali that has deepened ties with Russian mercenaries.

Defence ministers from the 14 European countries in the Takuba special forces mission in Mali, which is fighting jihadist insurgents, will hold video-talks on Friday (11 February), French defence minister Florence Parly's spokesman told EUobserver.

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The talks were a "regular" update on "coordination between European partners," the spokesman said.

But that underplayed the gravity of the situation in Mali where the EU is contending with new geopolitical tensions ahead of a marquee summit with the African Union next week.

Mali will not be present at that summit because the African bloc suspended it following last year's coup. Complicating the picture is growing Russian influence in West Africa.

Defence ministers were expected to consider how the "future counter-terrorism mission should look like," Danish foreign minister Trine Bramsen said following a decision by Mali on 25 January to expel Danish soldiers.

"Denmark's participation in Takuba is over for this time," a spokesperson for the Danish Defence Command told EUobserver by email on Thursday.

"Some of the Danish soldiers from Takuba returned home at the end of last week with a Danish C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. Soldiers and equipment will continue to return home from the mission in the coming weeks," the Danish command said.

To be sure, the French-led Takuba mission is still highly active. European and Malian soldiers killed more than 20 "terrorists" in an operation on 3 February involving a Mirage 2000 patrol fighter, France said earlier this week.

But the junta is sounding increasingly anti-European.

Malian prime minister Choguel Maïga this week accused France of espionage and of trying to partition Mali after the EU put him under a visa ban and asset freeze, on the grounds that he had postponed elections originally scheduled for 27 February.

And Mali has invited "several hundred" Russian mercenaries into the country even as the numbers of European soldiers diminish, forcing the EU to weigh up whether to keep forces in Mali against the geopolitical consequences of leaving.

"We condemn the intervention of mercenaries from Wagner Group," an EU foreign service spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Wagner's presence in Mali was "now proven," the spokeswoman said, adding: "The presence of the Russian mercenaries aggravates the crisis and poses a risk to the human rights situation".

EU foreign service chief Josep Borrell would take part in Friday's Parly-led talks on Takuba, she noted.

"Any change in the working conditions of Takuba and Barkhane would have implications for our CSDP [common security and defence policy] missions [in Mali]," she said.

Operation Barkhane is another French-led counter-jihadist operation in Mali and the wider Sahel region.

It is part of a galaxy of EU and international deployments, which also include two EU military training missions called EUTM Mali and EUCAP Sahel Mali and an Africa-led UN peacekeeping force called Minusma.

More than 1,000 EU military, police, and civilian personnel work at the two EU military missions alongside local staff.

"We take the security of our staff very seriously and will take the necessary decisions when the circumstances require it," the EU foreign service said when asked if it had made any evacuation plan for all those concerned in case the situation deteriorated.

New situation

But even if EU forces were to continue to shape Mali's future, it was clear they would need to adapt, said Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and former minister from president Emmanuel Macron's party.

"Undoubtedly, the presence of Wagner in Mali, but also restrictions and constraints imposed by Malian authorities to the presence of some European military create a new situation," Loiseau told EUobserver. "We must find a way to continue fighting terrorists in the region but to do it differently," she said.

"We must keep in mind that the presence of jihadist groups linked to Daesh and Al Qaeda also remains a threat [to Europe] and must be addressed," she said.

Meanwhile, Mali was "already facing the worst food insecurity crisis we've seen in 10 years," of conflict there Hannah Gibbin, a Senegal-based coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian organisation, said.

"Right now, we're estimating 1.2 million Malians are facing a food crisis," she said, urging the EU to make sure humanitarian aid could keep flowing even if it decided to impose further sanctions.

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