Russian Lavrov visits Mali in sign of deepening ties

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Mali on Tuesday morning for talks with his junta leaders to enlist Moscow’s help in fighting an Islamist insurgency that remains entrenched despite years of fighting .

Lavrov, who was in Iraq on Monday, was greeted upon his arrival by his counterpart Abdoulaye Diop. The two men made no statement to reporters.

The less than 24-hour visit will be his third trip to Africa since July, as part of a bid to expand Russia’s presence on the continent in broad international isolation following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

Since seizing control of Mali in two coups since August 2020, the military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita has welcomed support from Russia to help it in its anti-jihadist fight after expelling the forces of the former French colonial ruler.

Several Malian officials have visited Moscow, but Lavrov’s visit is “the first of its kind” aimed at cementing “new momentum” for security and economic cooperation between the two countries, according to Mali’s foreign ministry.

Lavrov will meet with Goita on Tuesday, as well as with Foreign Minister Diop, and a press conference is scheduled afterwards.

Mali has already received attack planes and helicopters from Moscow as well as several hundred Russian soldiers described by Mali’s leaders as instructors who are helping to strengthen its defense and sovereignty.

Western officials and some rights groups say the fighters are actually Wagner Group paramilitaries, who have been accused of brutal tactics and rights abuses elsewhere in Africa.

Mali’s leaders have claimed success against Islamists who have targeted the government over the past decade, a crisis that has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

But foreign observers, including the United Nations, have cast doubt on those claims, noting persistent attacks in the north and northeast of the country.

On Monday, UN rights chief Volker Turk denounced Mali’s expulsion of the agency’s top human rights representative over the weekend, saying his work was “more crucial than ever”.

Diplomatic coup

Lavrov’s visit also comes amid uncertainty over whether Goita will honor his agreement to return to civilian rule in March 2024, especially if the security crisis continues.

Last month, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a predominantly Tuareg alliance that fought the state for years before signing a peace deal in 2015, said it was withdrawing from its efforts to draft a new constitution, accusing the junta of dragging its feet.

Mali’s new Russian allies are also accused by rights groups and witnesses of abuses against civilians, including by the UN human rights envoy, prompting his order to leave the country. country.

The military regime has repeatedly blocked attempts by the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSMA, to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the armed forces.

As tensions with the international community rise, Moscow is hoping to seize a chance to expand its influence in the troubled region, with analysts noting that several African nations have refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In January, Lavrov criticized the West while accusing the United States and its allies of “colonial methods” during his visits to Angola, South Africa and Eswatini, insisting that Moscow was seeking relations on the continent based on “solidarity and support”.

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