French minister heads to Sahel amid talk of Russian hired guns for Mali

FILE PHOTO: A French soldier leaves with his backpack at the Operational Desert Platform Camp (PfOD) during the Operation Barkhane in Gao, Mali, August 1, 2019. Picture taken August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

NIAMEY (Reuters) - France's Armed Forces Minister arrived in Niger on Sunday as part of a two-day visit to allies in the Sahel region, where French-led military operations against Islamist militants are under threat from Mali's talks with Russian defence contractors.

Diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters that Mali's year-old military junta is close to recruiting the Russian Wagner Group, and France has launched a diplomatic drive to thwart it, saying such an arrangement is "incompatible" with a continued French presence.

West Africa's main political bloc, ECOWAS, has also expressed concern.

But Mali's junta has dug in, noting that France has begun scaling down its decade-old operation against insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State across the region, expecting other European countries such as Germany to get more involved.

On Sunday, Mali's foreign ministry called objections from Niger to the prospect of a deal with Wagner "unacceptable, unfriendly and condescending".

A few days ago, Paris said it had killed the leader of Islamic State in Western Sahara in northern Mali, but France has nevertheless found the junta more difficult to deal with than the preceding civilian governments.

A French Armed Forces Ministry source briefing reporters said Parly would discuss France's plans to reshape its operations with countries in the region, warn of consequences if Mali secured Wagner's services, and stress the importance of the junta holding a democratic election next February, as promised.

The French army started redeploying troops from its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali at the start of the month, French army sources have said.

France wants to complete the redeployment by January. It is reducing its contingent to 2,500-3,000 from about 5,000, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European special forces to work alongside local forces.

The European force in the Sahel so far comprises about 600 troops from nine countries.

(Reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Bate Felix and Kevin Liffey)

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