Estonia warned Wednesday that it will withdraw its troops serving in Mali if the West African nation goes ahead with a deal to hire Russian private security firm Wagner Group, Estonian media reported, the latest voice objecting to the deal with Russian mercenaries.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly held talks Monday with her Malian counterpart Sadio Camara following reports indicating that the country’s military government is close to sealing a deal for hiring 1,000 mercenaries.
“I am certainly of the belief that if there is a cooperation agreement made with Wagner Group and Wagner's private army will begin operating in Mali, the Estonian contingency will leave,” Estonian Defense Minister Kalle Laanet told national radio channel Vikerraadio.
Laanet also said that Estonia would have the capacity to monitor the regional situation in the context of mid-range air defense in five years.
Roughly 100 members of the Estonian Defense Forces are part of peace operations in Mali under the French-led Operation Barkhane.
Laanet said it is up to Paris to decide on the possible cooperation of Russian mercenaries and French troops, but Estonia was not ready to work with Wagner Group soldiers.
“It is up to the French to decide if they can work side by side with a Russian security company, but Estonians certainly cannot do so,” he said.
In 2013, France sent troops to Mali after unrest broke out in the north of the country.
But relations between the two deteriorated following a coup in August 2020 which toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali in June, and French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that he would close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the Sahel region.
Malian interim Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga has indicated that talks between his government and Wagner were motivated by the French drawdown.
The growing influence of Russian paramilitary companies and advisers has been witnessed in the Central African Republic to the dismay of France.
Germany has also warned against the Russian mercenaries, saying their deployment would call into question its military commitments in Mali.
Forces from Wagner are also reportedly present in Libya, Sudan and Mozambique.
Mali has been battling an insurgency linked to al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS since 2012, when the unrest started in the north of the country.
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