Mali defends Russian ties and opposes options for UN force


UNITED NATIONS — Mali’s foreign minister on Friday defended the military government’s cooperation with Russia and rejected three options proposed by the UN chief to reconfigure the UN peacekeeping force in the country. ‘West Africa where the extremist groups of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State are driving insecurity.

Abdoulaye Diop told the UN Security Council that security is the country’s top priority and that Mali will not continue to justify its partnership with Russia, which provides training and equipment to the military. He did not mention Russia’s Wagner Group, the private military contractor with ties to the Kremlin.

But Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ internal review released this week of the 17,500-strong UN mission, known as MINUSMA, noted that Mali’s security partnership with France and others deteriorated over concerns about the personnel of the Wagner Group operating in support of the Malian armed forces. which he said Russian officials have publicly acknowledged.

Deputy US Ambassador Richard Mills said the US welcomed the UN’s recognition of the internal review of the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali.

He called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights violations in Mali and elsewhere.” The United States has slapped several waves of sanctions on Wagner and its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire with longtime ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last year, France withdrew its troops from Mali, where they had been helping to drive Islamic extremists out of the country for nine years, following tensions with the ruling junta and the arrival of Wagner’s mercenaries.

“Their presence equates to regular abuses against Malian civilians and an increasing obstruction of MINUSMA,” France’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Nathalie Broadhurst, told the Security Council on Friday. “This is not acceptable.”

Mali has struggled to contain an extremist Islamic insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in northern Mali cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but regrouped in the desert and they began launching attacks against the Malian army and its allies. . Insecurity has also worsened with attacks on civilians and UN peacekeepers in central Mali.

In August 2020, the president of Mali was overthrown in a coup that included Assimi Goita, then an army colonel. In June 2021, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months.

Foreign Minister Diop told the council that Goita is “resolutely committed” to holding a referendum on a draft constitution in March, electing deputies to the National Assembly in October and in November and the holding of presidential elections in February 2024.

He said the government remains committed to defending its territory, protecting its people and implementing a 2015 peace agreement.

The peace deal was signed by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements that includes ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs seeking autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia known as the Platform —, but the movements suspend participation in December.

Diop called his decision “regrettable” but said “we hope to reach a common agreement soon with our brothers from the signatory movements.”

Secretary-General Guterres’ internal MINUSMA review called Mali “one of the most challenging operational environments for peacekeeping,” citing significant air and ground restrictions imposed by Malian security authorities. The restrictions have exposed peacekeeping personnel “to security risks in an already dangerous environment in which 165 peacekeepers have been killed and 687 injured by hostile actions since July 2013,” he said.

The secretary-general said the mission’s operations will be under additional pressure because four troop-contributing countries are withdrawing them, resulting in a loss of more than 2,250 troops.

Guterres said MINUSMA’s ability to fulfill its mandate — to protect civilians, support the improvement of the security and political situation and monitor human rights — will depend on progress in the political transition, progress in implementation of the peace agreement and the freedom of movement of the peace forces and their intelligence. , surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

The Secretary-General said the expansion of MINUSMA’s mandate in 2019 without additional manpower exceeded the mission and “the current situation is unsustainable”.

He proposed three options: increase the force by 3,680 or 2,000 uniformed; reconfigure the force to support its existing priorities or focus primarily on supporting the peace agreement; or end the peacekeeping mission and transform it into a political mission.

Mali’s Diop said the UN chief’s proposals fall short of Mali’s aspirations for a more robust security operation that includes engaging in offensive actions and patrols, particularly as part of its mandate to protect civilians.

On human rights, he said, the government “will strongly oppose any instrumentalization and politicization of this issue,” but will strive to protect rights.

Diop said the government participated in the internal review in the hope that it would “respond to the deep aspirations of the Malian people.”

“That has not happened,” said the foreign minister. “However, the Malian government remains open to dialogue with the United Nations in the coming months to finally identify the way forward.”

Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called security “the top priority” during Mali’s transition “due to the security vacuum resulting from a hasty withdrawal of French and European military units.”

However, he said, Malian forces in recent months “have shown that they can achieve results in the fight against terrorism”, adding that Russian training “is paying off”.

When it comes to options for reconfiguring MINUSMA, Nebenzia said, Mali’s needs and opinion are “a top priority.”

Conversely, US envoy Mills expressed deep concern about the transitional government’s restrictions on MINUSMA, which make its extremely volatile operating environment more dangerous for peacekeepers and civilians.

He demanded the government lift all restrictions, and reiterated the internal review’s conclusion that the success of MINUSMA will depend on the support it receives from the transitional authorities.

Mills said the continued obstruction “should compel this council to seriously reconsider its support for MINUSMA in its current form.”

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