France criticises deal bringing Russian mercenaries into Mali

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French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, France, June 25, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

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PARIS, Sept 14 (Reuters) - France's foreign minister on Tuesday criticised plans that would bring Russian mercenaries into Mali, saying such a move was "incompatible" with the French military presence in its former colony.

Diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters that a deal is close between the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group and Mali's ruling junta for the mercenaries to train the Malian military and provide protection for senior officials.

Asked by lawmakers about the report, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Wagner is a militia which has shown itself in the past in Syria and Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations that do not correspond with any solution and so it is incompatible with our presence."

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"I am saying this so that it is heard," he said.

Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told a separate hearing that she was "extremely concerned" by such a deal.

The sources told Reuters that Paris has begun a diplomatic drive to prevent the junta - which took power in coup in May - from enacting the deal. Paris would consider withdrawing from Mali if the deal went ahead, they said.

France is worried the arrival of Russian mercenaries would undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa just as it begins to scale down its 5,000-strong mission there to reshape it with more European allies, the diplomatic sources said.

President Emmanuel Macron announced those plans in July. France has hailed some successes against the militants in recent months but the situation is extremely fragile, compounded by the turmoil in Mali following the coup.

A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region said at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved in the Wagner Group deal. Two other sources believed the number was lower but did not provide figures.

Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about 6 billion CFA francs ($11 million) a month for its services. Reuters has been unable to reach the Wagner Group for comment

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Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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