Russian troops deploy to Timbuktu in Mali after French withdrawal

BAMAKO, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Russian soldiers have deployed to the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali to train Malian forces at a base vacated by French troops last month, Mali’s army spokesperson said on Thursday.

Mali’s government said last month that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided few details on the deployment, including on how many soldiers are involved or the Russian troops’ precise mission.

The Russians’ arrival has generated sharp criticism from Western countries, led by former colonial power France. They say the forces include contractors from the mercenary Wagner Group, which they accuse of human rights abuses in other countries.

Mali’s government has denied this, saying the Russian troops are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement.

“We had new acquisitions of planes and equipment from them (the Russians),” the Mali army spokesperson told Reuters. “It costs a lot less to train us on site than for us to go over there ... What is the harm?”

He did not say how many Russians had been sent to Timbuktu.

Local residents told Reuters that uniformed Russian men were seen driving around town but could not say how many there were.

Russia’s defence ministry was not immediately available for comment.

The Russian forces’ arrival in Mali follows deployments to several other African hotspots, part of what analysts say is an attempt by Moscow to recover influence on the continent after a long absence following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

France helped to recapture Timbuktu from al Qaeda-linked militants in 2013. France’s withdrawal from the city is part of a significant drawdown of a previously 5,000-strong taskforce in West Africa’s Sahel region sent to battle jihadist groups. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Gareth Jones)