Mali has approached private Russian security companies for help in its fight against terrorism following the French government’s “unilateral” decision to “abandon” the West African country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed to reporters during a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York on Saturday that Mali’s military-dominated government was turning towards "private Russian companies."
He said that Mali estimated that “its own capacities would be insufficient in the absence of external support” and “initiated the discussions."
“They are combating terrorism, incidentally,” Lavrov said, adding that, “As I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its military component which was present there.”
The Russian top diplomat also said that Moscow had nothing to do with any deal between the private firms and Mali.
France is preparing to reduce its military presence in the Sahel region.
Mali Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga accused Paris of abandoning his conflict-ravaged country with the "unilateral" decision to withdraw troops.
Addressing the UN General Assembly, Maiga said his government was justified to "seek other partners" to boost security.
“The new situation resulting from the end of Operation Barkhane [France military operation] 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,” the Malian premier said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday that he had warned Lavrov and his counterpart from Mali this week in New York that the potential deployment of Russian fighters to Mali would be a "red line" for Brussels.
He also warned that the deployment would have “immediate consequences on our cooperation."
Lavrov said Borrel told him not to “work in Africa at all, because Africa is our place.”
“That's exactly what he said," Lavrov said on Saturday. "To say, 'I was there first, get out,' it's insulting, first of all for the government in Bamako which invited foreign partners.”
Back in February 2013, the European Union launched a training mission for Malian armed forces, dubbed EUTM Mali, with the involvement of 700 soldiers from 25 countries.
Germany, which also has troops in the country, warned Bamako it will reconsider its deployment should the government strike a deal with Russian companies.
Mali has become increasingly engulfed in violence since a Tuareg uprising in 2012 was hijacked by extremist militants.
The French mission began operating in Mali in 2013 to allegedly counter militants that Paris claims are linked to the al-Qaeda and Daesh terrorist groups.
Some observers have, however, expressed suspicions about the actual goal sought by Paris inside the former colony, which boasts rich mineral reserves.