France Rejects Mali’s Accusations That It Helped Arm Islamist Fighters
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France on Thursday denied accusations by Mali’s foreign minister that the French army has provided support to Islamist groups and violated Malian airspace. Mali’s relations with Paris have been deteriorating since a junta took power in an August 2020 coup, eventually culminating in the withdrawal of French troops that was completed on Monday after a nearly decade-long mission.
The accusations mark a new low in relations amid reports that Russian mercenaries hired by Mali’s military government were flocking to fill the power vacuum left by French troops leaving the country, prompting new worries among Western powers over the security situation in the Sahel region.
Mali says France has violated its airspace and delivered arms to Islamist militants in an attempt to destabilise the West African country, the latest in a barrage of accusations that have marked a bitter end to their once-close relations.
In a letter to the head of the United Nations Security Council dated Monday, Mali’s foreign affairs minister, Abdoulaye Diop, said its airspace has been breached more than 50 times this year, mostly by French forces using drones, military helicopters and fighter jets. “These flagrant violations of Malian airspace were used by France to collect information for terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and to drop arms and ammunition to them,” the letter said.
Mali provided no evidence that France had supplied arms to Islamist groups. France has spent a decade and billions of dollars to stamp out Islamist militants, some with links to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, in its former colony and across the Sahel region.
“France has obviously never supported, directly or indirectly, these terrorist groups, which remain its designated enemies across the planet,” the French embassy in Mali said in a Twitter thread.
The embassy said that 53 French soldiers had died during its nine-year mission in Mali and that France had killed hundreds of Islamist fighters to restore security for Malians. France has also suffered Islamist attacks at home, it added.
German UN soldiers said they saw Russian forces landing at the airport in Gao and unloading equipment on Monday, the day the last French soldiers left, according to a German military document dated Tuesday.
Fighters from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company, have been supporting the Malian army in its fight against Islamist insurgents since late last year.
French forces were welcomed as heroes in Mali in 2013 after the government in Bamako asked France for help against the Islamist groups that had taken over much of the north, including the fabled city of Timbuktu.
But a series of setbacks and prolonged attacks by the militants have soured relations, which became worse since a military junta overthrew the government in 2020 and later overthrew an interim civilian cabinet.
Mali’s ruling junta called in February for France to withdraw its troops “without delay”. In May the junta announced it was leaving the defence accords it concluded with France, condemning “flagrant violations” of its national sovereignty by French troops.
Its military rulers had pledged to return power to civilians in 2022 but subsequently extended the timetable to 2024, incurring regional sanctions.