French Defence Minister Florence Parly warned Mali on Tuesday against a deal with Russian private security group Wagner amid claims the West African country’s junta is close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries.

Two French sources told AFP on Tuesday that the Malian government was nearing a deal with the controversial Russian firm, which would underline Moscow’s growing influence in the region.

“If the Malian authorities entered into a contract with Wagner, it would be extremely worrying and contradictory, incoherent with everything that we have done for years and we intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region,” Parly told a parliamentary commission.

Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry did not deny the discussions, which were first reported by Reuters news agency on Monday.

“Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country,” the spokesperson told AFP. “We haven’t signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone.”

In 2013, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist militants overran the north of the country.

Since then, Paris has deployed thousands of troops to the wider Sahel region where they carry out operations alongside local forces against Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since a coup in August 2020 toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

French leader Emmanuel Macron has been angered by backsliding on commitments to power-sharing and democratic rule, as well as decisions to free imprisoned jihadists in exchange for hostages.

France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron has announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the region.

The arrival of Russian mercenaries in Mali would be a “red line” for Macron, one of the French sources said, adding that Paris could send its troops stationed in the country to neighbouring Niger.

– ‘Worried about security’ –

In recent years, Russian paramilitaries, “security instructors”, companies and advisors have grown increasingly influential in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), whose relations with Paris have also nosedived.

Through close diplomatic and security ties, Russian companies have gained concessions in the CAR’s mining sector.

One of the French sources said the deal under discussion between Wagner and Mali would involve Russian access to mining rights.

Forces from Wagner are also reported to be present in various countries elsewhere in Africa, including in Libya in support of strongman Khalifa Haftar, in Sudan and in Mozambique.

Wagner was first seen in Mali by AFP at the end of 2019 when a small team was identified in the capital Bamako just after former president Keita had signed a military cooperation deal with Russia.

A diplomat in the Russian embassy in Mali told AFP that “we are not aware of any contract being signed between Mali and Wagner” and that the embassy had “not been the intermediary”.

“Like France and other countries, we are worried about security in the region,” the diplomat said.

In the CAR, France and NGOs have denounced the role played by Wagner, which is allegedly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by both the EU and US, has denied links to Wagner and any role in conflicts in Africa.

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