By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - From 300 to 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in central Mali, a senior French armed forces ministry official said, challenging an assertion by the West African country's junta https://www.reuters.com/world/mali-denies-deployment-russian-mercenaries-says-only-trainers-present-2021-12-25 that only Russian military trainers are deployed there.
Other West African nations have closed their borders with Mali, severed diplomatic ties and imposed economic sanctions in response to its delay in holding elections following a 2020 military coup, the 15-state regional bloc said on Sunday.
The moves were also a response to the arrival of private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group, whose members are mostly ex-service personnel.
"I would say there are around 300-400 members of Wagner and there are also Russian trainers, who provide equipment," the French official told reporters at a briefing late on Monday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Russian mercenaries had deployed with Malian forces to the centre of the country.
Mali's junta, which has proposed a five-year transition rather than stepping down in February as initially planned, has said the new forces are military instructors who came with equipment they bought from Russia.
The European Union https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eu-hits-russian-mercenary-group-wagner-with-sanctions-2021-12-13 has imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group, accusing it of clandestine operations on the Kremlin's behalf. President Vladimir Putin https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-military-contractors-idUSKCN1OJ1NS has said the group does not represent the Russian state, but that private military contractors have the right to work anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.
France has thousands of troops fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel region and in December joined 15 other countries, mostly European states operating in Mali, in condemning the possible arrival of mercenaries.
Paris has said any such move would be incompatible with the French presence in Mali.
"The fact that Wagner is in a different part of Mali limits the risk of interaction which would be very difficult (for us) to accept," the French official said. "They (the junta) made the choice to turn their backs on the Europeans, the Americans and Africans and that brings consequences."
He said consultations were under way between France and its European partners, who have provided special forces in Mali, on how to respond. Decisions are likely at European Union level at the end of January, he said.
(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Timothy Heritage)