Wagner Group violence near Mali border alarms Mauritania

By Mustafa Omar

UN combat helicopters on December 29 patrol areas in Mali recently hit by militant activity. [UN]

UN combat helicopters on December 29 patrol areas in Mali recently hit by militant activity. [UN]

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- The increasing destablisation of the Sahel region, attributed to the presence of Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries, has become a source of serious concern for observers in Mauritania.

During a news conference at the conclusion of the US-Africa Leaders summit last month in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed his warning about the Wagner Group's role in undermining the stability of several African countries.

"Wherever we've seen Wagner deploy, countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure and less independent. That's the common denominator," he said.

"What I heard in conversations this week, as I've heard in the past, is our partners in Africa tell us that they do not want their resources exploited," Blinken said.

Wagner mercenaries in Mali in 2022. [Wagner Group]

Wagner mercenaries in Mali in 2022. [Wagner Group]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L) meets with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo (2nd R) during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on December 14. [Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd L) meets with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo (2nd R) during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on December 14. [Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP]

"They don't want the human rights of their people abused. They don't want their governance undermined, and ultimately, as a result, they really don't want Wagner," he added.

Mauritania's border security

Days earlier, Wagner Group mercenaries had attacked a weekly market in the Malian village of Keita, near the border with Mauritania, Malian journalist Omar Sidi Mohamed told Al-Mashareq.

The repercussions of the attack "go beyond the alleged conflict between Wagner elements supported by the Malian army on one side, and terrorist groups on the other", he said.

The impact of such attacks on "the security of Mauritania and the inhabitants of the border areas between Mali and Mauritania [has] become a source of concern for many observers", he said.

"The attack, which took place 70km from the Mauritanian city of Fassala, fueled Mauritanians' fears that the fighting could spread close to their resort areas," Mauritanian journalist Qarini Amino told Al-Mashareq.

In light of this possibility, Nouakchott is monitoring the situation on its border with Mali, he said, adding that the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries "has become a reality that must be dealt with".

"The seriousness of the recent attack may deal a blow to the economies of many border villages whose residents depend primarily on the activity of mobile weekly markets," Amino said.

Trucks carrying food and other necessities pass daily between the two countries.

The recent violence may affect "the active trade exchange between the residents of the southeastern region of Mauritania and the southwestern regions of the state of Mali, where buying and selling activity flourishes", he said.

Mauritanian observers are focused on the impact of the presence of Wagner forces on Mauritanian internal and geo-strategic security, after the withdrawal of French forces from Operation Barkhane in August, he added.

A steep price for intervention

If talk about the escalating activity of Wagner Group mercenaries has become a common topic among Western politicians, Amino said, what is new today is that some African leaders are talking about this issue with great concern.

During his December 14 meeting with Blinken, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said Burkina Faso also has concluded an agreement with Russia to employ Wagner Group forces, as Mali has done.

The Ghanaian president revealed the hidden side of the relationship that some African countries have with Wagner, implicitly refuting the claims their governments have made regarding the nature of their relations with the group.

"I believe a [mineral] mine in southern Burkina has been allocated to them [Wagner] as a form of payment for their services," he said. "To have them operating on our northern border is particularly distressing for us in Ghana."

Akufo-Addo's statements confirm previous remarks made by former Deputy Director General of Mauritanian Security Taleb Abeidy Mohamed Abdellahi, a security researcher and risk management analyst.

In a late October Twitter post, Abdellahi noted that " seems that Wagner's mission was exorbitantly expensive and the results modest".

"This force costs the Malian treasury €10 million ($10.6 million) per month, and Mali has tried to make in-kind payments by negotiating to offer as payment gold mines operated by Western companies," he added.

It appears the results of bringing Wagner elements to the region were modest in terms of return for the local population, though costly in terms of security, said Mohammed el-Amine al-Dah, a specialist in the security of the Sahel region.

"The repercussions of Wagner's presence on the Mauritanian-Malian borders are very serious, as was expected, especially with the increased activity of these elements in central and western Mali," he told Al-Mashareq.

These areas are resort areas favoured by Mauritanian expatriates, he said, "where they trade with Malians with whom they have social interrelations".

Litany of abuses

These dangers drove Mauritania to intensify its diplomatic activity in the weeks preceding the Wagner Group attack on the Malian market, al-Dah said.

Mauritania sought to persuade the Malian government to move the Wagner Group's activity away from the commercial activity of the Mali-Mauritania border areas, he said.

But the recent recurrence of security incidents underscores the ineffectiveness of diplomatic pressure on the Bamako government, al-Dah said.

"Wagner elements are not a neutral party, and everyone accuses them of providing aid to armed terrorist groups in the region," he said.

The Malian government denies these accusations, as does the government of Burkina Faso, which has refuted the statements of the Ghanaian president, summoning the Ghanaian ambassador on December 16.

Burkina Faso's foreign ministry issued a statement saying "the government of Burkina Faso rejects the statements made by the President of Ghana".

Malian TV journalist Omar Sidi Mohammed attempted to justify the Wagner Group's attack on the weekly market in Keita, saying it was in the context of "tracing the sources of logistical support for the jihadist groups".

But United Nations (UN) investigations have proven the involvement of the Wagner Group in the targeting and killing of civilians in Mali, accusing it of exploiting the lack of security to threaten stability and undermine good governance.

Speaking at the December 15 news conference, Blinken said investigations have documented human rights abuses carried out by the Wagner Group in Africa, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

In addition to documenting the mercenary group's exploitation of resources, he said, "we've also seen Wagner interfere with UN peacekeeping operations, endangering peacekeepers, endangering United Nations personnel".

"It's a long litany of bad things."

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