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Supporters hold a poster of Mali's transition president, Colonel Assimi Goita, as they participate in a demonstration called by Mali transitional government after ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) sanctions in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 14, 2022.PAUL LORGERIE/Reuters

The Canadian government says it is deeply concerned about the deployment of Russian mercenary troops in Mali, one of Canada’s closest African partners, but is not yet prepared to withdraw a small contingent of Canadian soldiers and police from the West African country.

European and West African countries announced last week that they are imposing sanctions on Mali’s military junta for postponing elections by four years and for authorizing hundreds of Russian mercenaries to enter the country.

Several African and European airlines have suspended their flights to Mali, while some European countries are reviewing their military contributions to the United Nations peacekeeping force in the country. The UN peacekeepers have been obliged to ground all of their flights within Mali because of the sanctions.

Canada has been a strong supporter of Mali and one of its biggest aid donors for decades. It has provided $1.6-billion in development aid over the past 20 years, sent about 250 Canadian troops to Mali from 2018 to 2019 to support a helicopter deployment, and still has about two dozen police and military personnel in the country. But in the current crisis, it is still considering its options, federal officials say.

Canada and 15 European countries issued a scathing statement last month to protest against Mali’s decision to allow the deployment of hundreds of troops from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor with close links to the Kremlin.

“We deeply regret the choice of the Malian transitional authorities to use already scarce public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the Malian Armed Forces and public services to the benefit of the Malian people,” the statement said.

It said the 16 countries condemned the deployment of Russian troops because it will damage the security situation in West Africa, threaten human rights and jeopardize a peace agreement with rebels.

Russia has had a growing military presence in Africa in recent years, with Wagner mercenaries active in several countries. UN officials have accused Wagner soldiers of involvement in torture, summary executions, indiscriminate killings and forced disappearances in the Central African Republic, where an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 Russian military contractors have been active for years.

In addition to signing the joint statement with the European countries on Dec. 23, Canada has expressed its concerns about the Wagner deployment to the Malian authorities “on multiple occasions, especially our concerns related to their impact on peace and stability and on the respect of human rights, and we will continue to do so,” said Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, in an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

But there has been no decision on whether Canada will follow the European Union and the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, in imposing sanctions on Mali. “Canada tailors its responses to the specifics of each unique situation,” Ms. Tremblay said. “We will continue to monitor the situation in Mali closely and evaluate our policy options with regional and international partners.”

Canada suspended its direct budget support to Mali’s government, along with its direct military co-operation, after a coup in August, 2020. The coup was led by Colonel Assimi Goita, who became the country’s president after another coup last year.

Canada still has 16 police officers in Mali as part of a UN and EU training mission. “At this time, there is no change to the deployment of Canadian police officers to Mali,” said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival. “The RCMP is aware of the situation in Mali and is monitoring it closely.”

There are also seven Canadian Armed Forces members in Mali as part of the UN mission, according to Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesman for the Department of National Defence.

Ms. Tremblay said the Global Affairs department is not expecting Canada’s military and police deployment to be affected by the Europe and West African sanctions.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said Canada seems to be moving more slowly than the European countries in deciding on a response to events in Mali. But the government probably feels that a withdrawal from Mali would reduce Canada’s influence in the country, he said.

“When you have a major sunk cost there is a great reluctance to admit defeat,” Prof. Hampson said. “The fact we are a major provider of foreign assistance, that does give you some leverage if the goal is to get this provisional military government to hold elections. Once you pull your people out you lose your leverage.”

Bruno Charbonneau, director of the Centre for Security and Crisis Governance at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec, said the sanctions on Mali are unlikely to be effective, since some flights are continuing and most of its borders remain open. Canada would be overreacting if it withdraws, he said.

“The UN and many Malians still need help and support,” he said. “And if you want to pressure the Malian military junta, you likely want to stay to keep the pressure on.”

The arrival of the Russian mercenaries is equally unlikely to solve Mali’s problems, he said. Instead they are a symptom of a long deterioration in Mali’s political situation and a populist backlash against the prolonged French military presence in the country, Mr. Charbonneau said.

On Friday, thousands of people joined a government-organized demonstration in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to protest against the sanctions. “Down with imperialism, down with ECOWAS, down with France,” they shouted.

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