'Several hundred' Russian mercenaries in Mali, US Africa Command head says
"Wagner is in Mali," General Stephen Townsend, the head of US Africa Command, said in an interview with Voice of America. "They are there, we think, numbering several hundred now."
"They're deploying there, supported by the Russian military, Russian Air Force airplanes are delivering them," he said, directly tying the Wagner group to the Kremlin, a link that Moscow denies.
"The world can see this happening," Townsend said. "It's a great concern to us."
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week accused Wagner's mercenaries of "supporting" Mali's ruling junta under the pretense of fighting jihadists. He also slammed Russia for allegedly lying about the status of the Wagner group.
"When we asked our Russian colleagues about Wagner, they said they don't know anything (about it)," he said.
"When it comes to mercenaries who are Russian veterans, who have Russian weapons, who are transported by Russian planes, it would be surprising if the Russian authorities did not know about it," Le Drian said.
"We are living in a lie."
The junta seized power in Mali in a 2020 coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in December agreed to sanction Bamako after the junta proposed staying in power for up to five years before staging elections - despite international demands to respect a promise to hold the vote in February.
The European Union may soon follow suit, at the instigation of France, which has accused the junta of using Wagner's services, something Bamako denies.
In New York Friday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appeared to confirm the Wagner group's presence in Mali.
He said UN officials had not been in touch with the Russian mercenary group amid efforts to get the Malian leadership to discuss a timeframe for new elections.
"The only thing that we wish to see is that this (Wagner) involvement doesn't create any difficulty in achieving what we want," in terms of cooperation between the Malian army and Minusma, the UN peacekeeping group in Mali.
"And of course, what we also want is to see the full respect of human rights and international humanitarian law," Guterres said.
Also on Friday, the UN confirmed it was investigating an alleged massacre in the Central African Republic last week involving the CAR military together with the Wagner group, which has been contracted to work with them.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that the UN mission known as MINUSCA in the country received reports of the incident, involving CAR troops and "other security personnel."
"We are currently confirming the number of casualties and displacement," Dujarric said.