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Tensions between Russia and the West inflame UN debate over Malian peacekeepers

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Tensions between Russia and the West are heightening discussions over the future of one of the United Nations’ largest and most perilous peacekeeping operations, the force sent to assist the Mali to resist a decade-long extremist Islamist insurgency.

The UN mission in the West African country is due for renewal this month, at a volatile time when extremist attacks are intensifying. Three UN peacekeepers have been killed this month alone. Mali’s economy is suffocating under sanctions imposed by neighboring countries after its military rulers postponed a promised election. France and the European Union are ending their own military operations in Mali in a context of degraded relations with the ruling junta.


Members of the UN Security Council widely agree that the peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, must continue. But a Council debate this week was marred by friction over France’s future role in Mali and the presence of Russian military contractors.

“The situation has become very complex for the negotiations,” said Rama Yade, senior director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“The international context has a role, and Mali is part of the Russian game on the international stage,” she said.

The peacekeeping mission began in 2013, after France led a military intervention to oust extremist rebels who had taken over towns and major cities in northern Mali the previous year. MINUSMA now has about 12,000 soldiers, plus about 2,000 police and other officers. More than 270 blue helmets died.

France is leading negotiations on the extension of the mission’s mandate and offers to continue providing French air support. Senior UN official for Mali El-Ghassim Wane said the force particularly needed attack helicopter capabilities.

But Mali strongly opposes a continued French air presence.

“We would therefore call for respect for the sovereignty of our country,” Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the council on Monday.

Mali requested military aid from France, its former colonial ruler, in 2013. The French military was credited with helping drive insurgents out of Timbuktu and other northern centers, but they regrouped elsewhere , began to attack the Malian army and its allies and pushed further. south. The government now controls just 10% of the north and 21% of the central region, according to a UN report this month.

Patience with the French military presence is diminishing, however, especially as extremist violence rises. There have been a series of anti-French protests in the capital, which some observers say were promoted by the government and a group of Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group.

Mali has moved closer to Russia in recent years as Moscow has sought to forge alliances and gain influence in Africa – and the two countries are at odds with the West. Senior Malian and Russian officials have been hit with European Union sanctions, triggered by Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2014 and Mali’s failure to hold elections that were promised last February.

In this context, the members of the Security Council clashed over the presence of the Wagner group in Mali. The Kremlin denies any connection to the company. But Western analysts say it is a tool in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to gain influence in Africa.

The Wagner Group has committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, according to allegations by the EU and human rights organisations. In Mali, Human Rights Watch accused Russian fighters and the Malian army of killing hundreds of mostly civilians in the town of Moura; Mali said those killed were “terrorists”. The UN peacekeeping force is investigating, as is the Malian government.

The recent UN report on Mali notes a “significant increase” in reports of abuses by extremists and Malian forces, sometimes accompanied by “foreign security personnel”. “have no illusions – this is the Russian-backed Wagner Group.”

Mali says the opposite. While officials said Russian soldiers were training Mali’s military as part of a long-standing security partnership between the two governments, Diop insisted to the Security Council that “we don’t know anything about Wagner”.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a television interview in May that the Wagner Group was in Mali “on a commercial basis”.

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, told the Security Council that African countries have every right to hire soldiers for pay. And she suggested they had every reason to do so, saying Mali’s security “continues to deteriorate” despite European military efforts.

She blasted Western unease over Russia’s closer ties with Mali as “neo-colonialist approaches and double standards”.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres is planning a six-month review to look at ways to re-equip MINUSMA.

To Sadya Touré, a writer and founder of a women’s organization called Mali Musso, told the council that her country “should not be a battleground between great powers”.

“It’s the people who suffer the consequences of these tensions.”