Crime & Justice

Russia's Wagner Group on a mission to plunder Mali's wealth, cause insecurity

By Mustafa Omar

A Wagner Group mercenary in Africa. [Wagner Group]

A Wagner Group mercenary in Africa. [Wagner Group]

Russian policies and actions in the Sahel region of western and north-central Africa, which include the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries, have made the security situation in the region worse, former soldiers and officials said.

By deploying 2,000 Wagner fighters to Mali, Russia intends to protect its own interests rather than fight terrorism, said northern Mali resident and former Malian army soldier Sidi Abdelkader.

"The Malian government has recently dispatched two groups of Wagner elements to the north. Al-Qaeda confronted one of them, killing four elements and capturing another," Abdelkader said.

The other group headed to central Mali, where it clashed with the Macina Liberation Front, he said. The battalion inflicted heavy losses on the Wagner patrol, forcing it to return to the capital, Bamako.

Supporters of Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) hold a Russian flag as they gather at Independence square in Bamako on May 28, 2021 to celebrate the recent coup led by the vice president of the transitional government Assimi Goita. [Michele Cattani/AFP]

Supporters of Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) hold a Russian flag as they gather at Independence square in Bamako on May 28, 2021 to celebrate the recent coup led by the vice president of the transitional government Assimi Goita. [Michele Cattani/AFP]

The situation in Mali has become "significantly worse" as a direct result of the ruling junta's choices, including an alleged decision to partner with the Wagner Group, a Russian private security firm, a senior US official said October 26.

Mali's ruling junta, which seized power in 2020, has turned away from its traditional ally France and become closer to Russia in its fight against a decade-long extremist insurgency, but it denies it is linked to the Wagner Group.

French officials have noted the growing push by Russia to expand its influence in West Africa, including via the Wagner Group, AFP reported.

France's Irsem strategic research institute, part of its military academy, recently pointed to a "proliferation of online disinformation, mainly aimed at denigrating the French presence while justifying Russia's".

Russia's role in Mali has limited the help the African country might receive from other sources.

"The United States' ability to help Mali on the security side is greatly constrained ... by the choice that the Mali government made to get into bed with Wagner," Victoria Nuland of the US State Department said last month.

"The presence of Wagner elements in northern Mali is aimed at countering the French influence in the region and strengthening the influence of the pro-Russian military regime in Mali," said Qasi Ras al-Maa, an Algerian security expert.

This is seen as a means to facilitate the Wagner Group's mission of plundering Mali's wealth, he told Al-Mashareq, pointing out that Wagner elements are mostly situated in areas rich in gold, iron and other natural resources.

Wagner accused of killing civilians

The Malian state reportedly pays the Wagner Group 10 million euros [a month] for its military service, al-Maa said.

Yet "Wagner's presence in Mali has contributed to the deterioration of the security situation in northern Mali", he said.

"Wagner elements receive support from a terrorist group called the Hijji battalion with close ties to the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' (ISIS), whose members have mostly defected from the Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen group," he said.

The Malian military government has denied there are negative consequences to the presence in Mali of Wagner mercenaries, and claims it has made progress in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.

The events on the ground, however, prove the opposite.

On November 2, the Guardian quoted local sources as saying that elements of the Wagner Group, backed by Malian army soldiers, killed at least 13 civilians on October 30 in the city of Mopti in central Mali.

A number of local residents said the civilians were killed in a large-scale air operation in an area known to be a stronghold of extremist groups, AFP reported.

This was followed by a ground attack staged by Malian forces and Wagner Group mercenaries on a village near Tenenkou, local sources said.

Among the dead were a woman, her daughter and her granddaughter, they said.

Seizing Africa's resources

In the central part of the country, Malian forces have regained control over many towns and villages, said Omar Sidi Mohammed, a journalist with the Malian Radio and Television Corporation (ORTM).

These towns and villages are in Mopti, Ségou, Hombori, Douentza and Bandiagara, he said, and were controlled by extremist groups until recently.

The security situation in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso has deteriorated at an unprecedented pace since the withdrawal of the French forces, he said.

This has allowed ISIS to impose control over strategic areas such as Andéramboukane, Tessit and Tamalate, Mohammed said.

Gao and Menaka are likely the easternmost parts of the country with Russian presence, he said.

Using Wagner mercenaries, Russia is launching a new phase of intervention in African countries that have undergone military coups, Romanian journalist Mircea Merik told Al-Mashareq.

Russia's main objective is to seize control of African resources, which is the goal of some other countries such as China, he said, noting that for the time being, China is the main beneficiary of this competition.

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