France exits Mali, al-Qaeda turns guns on Russian mercenaries

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Tuesday, 16 August 2022 13:16

With more than 5,000 soldiers deployed in five countries in the Sahel, Barkhane is the largest external operation currently being carried out by the French army. Credit:ANTONIN BURAT

Just as President Emmanuel Macron pulled the last French soldiers out of Mali, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Mali, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) announced that it had killed four Russian mercenaries from the private military firm the Wagner Group in an ambush around Bandiagara in central Mali.

The French military mission in Mali, Operation Barkhane, which was aimed at supporting Mali against insurgents, had lasted for nine years. The last unit crossed into neighbouring country Niger on Monday 15 August, after a fallout between France and the Malian junta, which took power in August 2020.

On 17 February 2022, France announced that it would begin recalling all its troops. On Monday, the French chief of staff issued a statement saying: “Today at 13h00 Paris time (11h00 GMT) the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger.”

The statement also said that the mission was undergoing a “deep transformation” but would “continue to fight terrorism” in the region.

At the same time, though seemingly unconnected, the JNIM said its fighters clashed with Russian mercenaries in the Mopti region on Saturday 13 August.

Two local officials confirmed to AFP that jihadists indeed killed four Russians in that region over the weekend, and a hospital source further backed this up with news of “death in combat of four Russians.”

READ MORE From Russia to Africa: The trail of Wagner

The Russian Wagner group began supplying hundreds of fighters to support the Malian army last year. It has since been accused by human rights groups and local residents of massacres of civilians but has not responded to these allegations.

The situation in Mali

Although billions were spent by France and many lives were lost, the case of Mali (and the greater Central Sahel) is not improving, with many arguing that it is in fact worsening. More than 2000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since the beginning of the year.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project: “An important dimension of the ever-worsening crisis is the scale of atrocities against civilians perpetrated by Malian state forces; Russian Wagner Group mercenaries; Burkinabe state forces; and jihadist military groups, including the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel) and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).”

Did the French help?

Mali has been struggling to stem an Islamist insurgency since a 2012 uprising. When French troops first arrived in the country in 2013, they were hailed as heroes saving Mali from the jihadist threat.

The situation is worse than in 2013 … The cancer has spread through Mali.

However, their mission did not succeed. The insurgency, formerly limited to the northern parts of the country, has spread to the centre, as well as neighbouring countries, killing thousands and displacing millions across West Africa’s Sahel region.

Already thousands of Malian civilians and soldiers, and 59 French military personnel have recently been killed. Alpha Alhadi Koina, a Bamako-based geopolitical analyst at the research institute Think Peace Sahel says: “The situation is worse than in 2013 … The cancer has spread through Mali.”

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