Lavrov says Mali asked private Russian military company for help


FILE PHOTO: A general view of the city of Bamako pictured from the point G in Bamako, Mali August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Mali has asked a private Russian military company to help it fight against insurgents, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday at the United Nations.

Mali's year-old military junta is close to a deal to recruit the Russian private military contractors the Wagner Group, sources have told Reuters, triggering opposition from France, which has said it was "incompatible" with a continued French presence in the West African state.

"They are combating terrorism, incidentally, and they have turned to a private military company from Russia in connection with the fact that, as I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its military component which was present there," Lavrov said of Mali's junta during a news conference.

The French defence ministry declined to comment. Paris has started reshaping its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to include more European partners and earlier this month began redeploying from bases in northern Mali.

Mali's military junta has said it will oversee a transition to democracy leading to elections in February 2022.

Mali's Prime Minister Choguel Maiga told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that his country felt abandoned by the French move and signaled they were seeking other military help "to fill the gap which will certainly result from the withdrawal of Barkhane in the north of the country."

"The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane puts Mali before a fait accompli - abandoning us, mid flight to a certain extent - and it leads us to explore pathways and means to better ensure our security autonomously, or with other partners," he said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday that he told Lavrov and his counterpart from Mali this week in New York that the potential deployment of the Wagner Group would be a "red line" for the European Union, "and it would have immediate consequences on our cooperation."

EU foreign ministers discussed the issue on Monday during a closed-door meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Lavrov said the Russian government had nothing to do with any deal between the private military company and Mali.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt and Tangi Salaun; Editing by Jane Merriman and Daniel Wallis)

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