Russian presence in Mali must not create blind spots for peacekeepers - Germany

By Sabine Siebold and Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - The presence of Russian forces in Mali must not hinder U.N. peacekeepers nor provide cover for human rights breaches, Germany's chief of defence said, warning that any such developments could lead to an end of Berlin's engagement there.

Berlin has deployed some 1,000 troops to Mali, most of them near the northern town of Gao where their main task is to gather reconnaissance for the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA that aims to stem violence from a decade-long Islamist insurgency.

The future of the operation is in doubt, though, after a dispute with the government in Bamako over flight clearances and reports of Russian forces arriving in Gao, adding to Berlin's unease over the increasing Russian military presence in Mali.

Europe's relations with Bamako have deteriorated following a military coup in 2020, especially since the ruling junta welcomed fighters from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company, to support its fight against insurgents.

That already prompted France to withraw its troops earlier this year after almost a decade in the country.

Germany's Chief of Defence Eberhard Zorn confirmed earlier reports that 20-30 Russian soldiers had been spotted at Gao airport, helping Malian troops to unload a plane of the Malian military.

"Gao airport has been operated by an African company since the withdrawal of the French (military)," Zorn, Germany's highest-ranking soldier, told Reuters in an interview.

"According to our current information, Russian forces are not involved in the running of the airport. We are monitoring the situation very closely."

Problems might arise should the Malian authorities restrict the freedom of movement of the U.N. troops and their reconnaissance aircraft, he said.

"If you have various actors in an area of operations, it takes coordination to prevent unintended incidents - no matter, whether you are operating on land, at sea or in the air," Zorn said, adding these procedures had worked well between the French forces and the U.N. troops.

"It remains to be seen how the Malian authorities and the U.N. will take our security interests into account with regard to the Russian engagement in Mali," Zorn said.

Should the Malian authorities restrict the freedom of movement of the U.N. troops or set up Russian air defence systems, this would be problematic, he added.

"If the freedom of movement of MINUSMA were restricted or the use of our means of reconnaissance limited, this could create blind spots in the U.N.'s situational awareness," the general said.

"Should there be further human rights violations during joint Russian-Malian operations, we may come to a point when a German participation in MINUSMA could no longer be justified," Zorn said.

"In this case, we would have to seriously discuss the continuation of the entire mission with our international partners."

The reliable issuance of flight clearances and the respect of the freedom of movement are the fundamental conditions for any further German engagement in Mali, according to Zorn.

In mid-August, Berlin had temporarily suspended its reconnaissance mission after the Malian government had repeatedly withheld clearances for German military flights.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Sarah Marsh, Editing by Angus MacSwan)