A potential deal to bring as many as 1,000 Russian mercenaries to Mali is likely to further destabilize the country, according to senior U.S. officials who are urging the interim government to instead focus on elections.
Word of the not-yet-finalized deal, with Russia’s Wagner Group, has already rankled some French and European officials. And it now appears to be drawing increased attention from the United States, itself wary of Russian efforts across Africa.
"We continue to be concerned about the rise … of malign influences on the continent,” a senior administration official said Friday in response to a question from VOA about the potential deal with Moscow.
"We don't think looking to outside forces to provide security is the way forward," the official said.
“That is not how to best start down the road to true stability,” the official added, stressing the need to move ahead with a transition to a “fully elected, democratic government.”
The comments came just days after Mali celebrated its independence, with an estimated 3,000 people taking to the streets of Bamako to protest Western anger over the deal with Russia, some of them calling concerns about the tentative agreement “foreign meddling.”
The deal, first reported by Reuters, would pay Wagner $10.8 million a month to train Mali’s military and provide security for senior officials.
Malian authorities have also been increasingly vocal in expressing displeasure with the U.S. and France, which announced in June that it would bring home about 2,000 counterterrorism forces it had in Mali and neighboring countries.
"If partners have decided to leave certain areas, if they decide to leave tomorrow — what do we do?" Prime Minister Choguel Maiga asked in remarks posted on the country’s Le Jalon news site. "Should we not have a plan B?"
In a possible effort to ease such concerns, the U.S. sent the commander of U.S. forces for Africa, General Stephen Townsend, to Mali on Thursday, where he and other U.S. officials met with Malian transitional President Assimi Goita and Defense Minister Sadio Camara.
“Malian and international partner forces have shed blood together while fighting against the terrorists that threaten innocent civilians in Mali and the Sahel,” Townsend said in a statement Friday, following the visit.
“We want to continue this long-standing partnership,” he added.
Following France’s announcement that it would be reducing its counterterrorism forces in Mali and the Sahel, the Pentagon said it would continue to “assist building partner capacity” in the region.
And recent meetings of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS have focused on stopping the spread of the Islamic State and other terror groups in Africa, and in Mali in particular.
However, while U.S. AFRICOM is working with a number of partners in West Africa and the Sahel, security assistance to Mali itself has been limited, under U.S. law, because of the coup.
Much of the concern focuses on IS-Greater Sahara, which is thought to have at least several hundred fighters in the region, and on the al-Qaida-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, also known as JNIM.
U.S. and European military officials have also long expressed concerns about Russian involvement in Africa, warning of the corrosive influence of mercenaries with the Wagner Group, who are often perceived to be doing the Kremlin’s dirty work.
“They are everywhere,” Vice Admiral Hervé Bléjean, director-general of the European Union Military Staff, told a forum this past June. “They bring nothing to the country except immediate security answers, maybe, at the price of committing a lot of ... violations of human rights and atrocities."
On Friday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali would be “a red line for us.”
“It would have immediate consequences on our cooperation [with Russia] on many other issues,” he added.
VOA’s Bambara Service and Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.