UNITED NATIONS -- Mali’s foreign minister accused former colonial power France on Tuesday of “duplicitous acts” of aggression and espionage aimed at destabilizing the troubled West African country -- allegations immediately dismissed by France’s U.N. ambassador as “mendacious” and “defamatory.”
The acrimonious exchange at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Mali highlighted the depth to which relations between the two countries have plunged since a coup in August 2020 and the August 2022 departure of the last of thousands of French forces that had been in the country at the government’s invitation since 2013 to fight Islamic extremists.
Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop reiterated accusations the transitional government made in August that French aircraft “invaded” its airspace, and alleged that France was providing material to “criminal groups" that is destabilizing the civilian population.
He called for a special Security Council meeting “for us to bring to light evidence regarding duplicitous acts, acts of espionage and acts of destabilization waged by France against Mali.”
“Mali reserves the right to exercise its right to self-defense," Diop said, “if France continues to undermine the sovereignty of our country and to undermine its territorial integrity and its national security.”
France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere countered, saying he wanted “to re-establish the truth after the mendacious accusations and defamatory accusations from the Malian transitional government,” stressing that “France never violated Malian airspace.”
He said French troops were redeployed in the Sahel “based upon observation that political conditions and operational circumstances were no longer in place to remain engaged in Mali,” noting that 59 French troops paid with their lives in nine years of fighting alongside Malian soldiers against “terrorist armed groups.”
Despite Mali’s “grave, unfounded allegations” and its “unilateral, unjustified” denunciation in May of the 2013 agreement that brought French troops to the country, De Riviere said, “France will remain engaged in the Sahel, the Gulf of Guinea and the Lake Chad region alongside all reasonable states who have taken the choice to counter terrorism and to respect stability and peaceful coexistence among communities.”
“We shall persevere in our fight against terrorism in coordination with all of our partners, and we shall also continue to support civilian populations who are the main victims of terrorism,” the French ambassador said.
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012, and extremist rebels were forced from power in northern cities with the help of the French-led military operation. But they regrouped and have launched attacks in central Mali and targeted the Malian army, U.N. peacekeepers and civilians.
Col. Assimi Goita took part in the August 2020 coup and in June 2021, he was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months. Late last year Goita reportedly decided to allow the deployment of Russia’s Wagner group, which passes itself off as a private military contractor but is long believed to have strong ties to the Russian government.
The U.N. special envoy for Mali, El-Ghassim Wane, told the Security Council that Mali is facing “a very challenging security, humanitarian and human rights situation, with severe consequences for civilians across large parts of the country.”
The security situation remains “volatile” in central Mali and the border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, he said, and there has been a sharp increase in activities by extremist elements affiliated with the Islamic State in the greater Sahara and the al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
The extremists “are taking advantage of security voids which the Malian forces are striving to fill and are fighting for territorial control” while targeting Malian troops and U.N. peacekeepers, Wane said.
On a positive note, Wane highlighted steps toward elections which foreign minister Diop said would take place in February 2024, progress on monitoring a 2015 peace agreement, and a recent agreement which Diop said would reintegrate 26,000 former combatants by 2024.
But the U.N. envoy criticized the transitional government’s restrictions on the 17,500-strong U.N. peacekeeping force known as MINUSMA.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said they include “no-fly zones, visa denials, and refusals of ground patrols and flight clearances” which have severely impacted MINUSMA's key roles protecting civilians and investigating violations of their human rights.
“We are appalled by reports of human rights violations and abuses allegedly perpetrated by violent extremist groups and by Malian armed forces in partnership with the Kremlin-backed Wagner group,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Britain’s deputy U.N. ambassador James Kariuki said the military response to “the terror” imposed by Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliated extremist groups must protect human rights. He pointed to a 40% increase in cases of conflict-related sexual violence in Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ latest report on Mali.
In August, Kariuki said the U.N. independent expert on human rights reported violations by Malian forces alongside “foreign military personnel described as Russian military officials.”
“The malign presence of the Wagner Group can no longer be ignored or denied,” he said.
Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Anna Evstigneeva blamed “the unprovoked withdrawal" of French and European Union contingents from Mali for the upsurge in extremist activities.
She called the negative Western reaction to the strengthening of Russian-Malian cooperation and its assistance to country's military “yet another manifestation of the patronizing approach and double standards of former colonial powers.”