A senior U.S. administration official says she has secured a promise from Burkina Faso’s new president that the West African country will refrain from recruiting Russian mercenaries to fight Islamist militia groups.
The growing presence of the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group military contractors in several African countries has become a key flashpoint in the global rivalry between Moscow and Washington.
The Russian mercenary group, which is also heavily involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is widely seen as a tool for Moscow to project its power globally, gaining political and economic influence in exchange for the military services that the contractor offers.
This month, demonstrators waving Russian flags have demanded that Burkina Faso’s newly installed military junta should recruit Wagner Group troops to fight Islamist militants in the country, as neighbouring Mali has already done.
This, in turn, has triggered U.S. lobbying to keep the Russian company out of the country.
Wagner Group troops in Mali are perpetrating human rights abuses, allowing terrorism to escalate and “strip-mining” local assets to enrich themselves, according to Victoria Nuland, under secretary for political affairs in the U.S. State Department, in a conference call with journalists on Wednesday.
The Russian contractor’s military activities in Africa were a major issue in Ms. Nuland’s visit last week to four West African countries – including Mali, where a Wagner Group force of about 1,000 troops has been accused of massacring and torturing civilians.
Mali’s neighbours are “extremely concerned” and want to ensure that “Wagner and terrorism both stay on the Malian side of the border,” Ms. Nuland told journalists.
She said she discussed the risks of a Wagner Group deployment when she talked to Burkina Faso’s coup leader and newly installed president, Capt. Ibrahim Traore, in a meeting last week.
“He was unequivocal in saying that it is Burkinabe who will defend the security of their nation, and that they have no intention of inviting Wagner in,” she said.
Under U.S. law, there are limits on the military support that the United States can provide to countries where coups have taken place. Despite those constraints, Ms. Nuland said she talked to Burkina Faso’s new military junta about “how we can continue to support strong efforts by the Burkina military to push back terrorism in its midst, without outside support from Russia and Wagner.”
In Mali, another country run by a military regime after a coup, the United States is constrained by its domestic laws and “even more by the choice that the Mali government made to get into bed with Wagner,” she said.
“We’re just not going to operate in the same space, even if we were invited to or able to do so, because of the negative way they operate, their human rights abuses.”
Wagner Group’s activities have imposed a “shrinking space” on the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, she said.
“They are encouraging the Malian forces to deny MINUSMA access to large swathes of the middle of Mali, where MINUSMA has a very clear mandate. And we worry that these [Wagner] forces are not interested in the safety and security of the people of Mali but instead are interested in enriching themselves and strip-mining the country and are making the terrorism situation worse.”
Incidents of terrorism have increased by 30 per cent in the past six months as Wagner mercenaries “squeeze out” the UN peacekeepers, she said.
Even the Wagner Group’s military equipment is unreliable and malfunctioning, she said, noting that a Russian plane crashed this month in northern Mali, killing at least two people.
In recent years, Wagner Group soldiers have been active in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, Mozambique, Sudan and Mali, often exploiting a security vacuum when national forces are unable to defeat insurgents.
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Human rights groups and UN agencies in several of these countries have documented massacres and other atrocities by Wagner Group mercenaries.
Many people in the Sahel region of West Africa, including Mali and Burkina Faso, have become increasingly critical of their traditional military support from France as jihadist groups gain ground in the region. The Islamist groups have killed thousands of people in recent years and forced at least two million people to flee their homes.