The French war on terror in the Sahel desert, now Wagner mercenaries are a problem

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The last French soldier was killed on Friday morning by a barrage of Kalashnikovs in the Gossi region, near the border with Burkina Faso. Maxime Blasco was 34 years old and is the 52nd victim of the Paris war in Mali, which began in 2013 when the then-president François Hollande sent combat helicopters to repel the Islamist offensive towards the capital Bamako. Like most of his fellow soldiers who died in battle at the hands of African jihadists, Blasco was part of a military generation skilled in fighting in the desert sands. So much so that the French press calls the men of Operation Barkhane “children of the Sahel.”

In Mali, France has deployed over five thousand men who carry out almost daily attacks with drones and special forces in a region as large as Europe. By December French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision, the military will have to abandon the bases of Kidal, Tessalit, and Timbuktu, in the north of Mali, and by 2023 the number of French operating in the region will have to reduce by two thousand men. For Macron, France has already done its part and asks for the intervention of other European armies to control the borders with Mauritania, Libya, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

Furthermore, since last year, the jihadist groups of Mali, free to move undisturbed because the state is absent, have begun to foster the flames of inter-ethnic conflicts, exacerbating the ancient feuds between farmers and ranchers, between Peul and Dogon.

Paris has therefore decided to reorganize its military presence on the ground thanks to a more restricted device and more connected to local armies, which mainly launches targeted attacks against the leaders of the jihad. A new strategy has already paid off: on 16 September, the French military killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, their “priority enemy” in the Sahel and founder of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Since 2011, Al-Sahrawi has been responsible for most of the bloodiest offensives in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Its end is also the demonstration that, albeit by reducing its troops, Paris is not willing to leave Mali nor the war against terrorism in the region. Especially since the EUTM Mali mission is now operational in the African country, made up of 700 soldiers from 25 European countries.

That is not the opinion of the prime minister of Bamako, Choguel Maiga, who yesterday in the United Nations tribune criticized Paris for having “let her country fall on deaf ears.” Maiga also said he had to fill the void that Paris leaves with the withdrawal of most of his troops. That adds to the new protest of thousands of protesters who every week in the capital reaffirm their support for the transitional authorities and ask for closer ties with Russia. In the background, there are controversies on the Malian authorities that have started with the Russian private security company Wagner to conclude a military collaboration contract.

News has circulated that the Bamako government is close to reaching a deal with Wagner to send a thousand Russian mercenaries in a contract worth over 10 million dollars a month. According to the same sources, the agreement could also guarantee the Wagner group access to three mineral deposits, two of gold and one of magnesium.

The French Defense Minister, Florence Parly, has risen against Wagner paramilitary company, close to the Kremlin and already massively present in Libya and the Central African Republic. “We cannot be present in Mali with mercenaries.” But any intervention by the Russian paramilitary company also scares the rest of the European Union. As the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said, the presence of Russian contractors “would compromise EU cooperation and have immediate consequences for the Bamako government.”

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