UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Mali's foreign minister defended the military government's cooperation with Russia on Friday and rejected three options proposed by the U.N. chief to reconfigure the U.N. peacekeeping force in the west African country where Al-Qaida and Islamic State extremist groups are driving insecurity.
Abdoulaye Diop told the U.N. Security Council that security is the country's top priority and Mali will not continue to justify its partnership with Russia, which is providing training and equipment to the military. He did not mention Russia's Wagner Group, the private military contractor with ties to the Kremlin.
But Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' internal review released this week of the 17,500-strong U.N. mission, known as MINUSMA, noted that Mali's longstanding security partnership with France and others deteriorated over concerns about Wagner Group personnel operating in support of the Malian armed forces, which he said Russian officials have publicly acknowledged.
U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills said the United States welcomes the U.N.'s acknowledgement in the internal review of the Wagner Group's presence in Mali.
He called Wagner "a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses in Mali and elsewhere." The U.S. has slapped several waves of sanctions on Wagner and its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last year, France pulled its troops out of Mali, where they had been helping drive Islamic extremists from the country for nine years, following tensions with the ruling junta and the arrival of Wagner mercenaries.
"Their presence is equated to regular abuse against Malian civilians and increasing obstruction of MINUSMA," France's deputy U.N. ambassador Nathalie Broadhurst told the Security Council on Friday. "This is not acceptable."
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali's northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and U.N. peacekeepers in central Mali as well.
In August 2020, Mali's president was overthrown in a coup that included Assimi Goita, then an army colonel. In June 2021, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months.
Foreign minister Diop told the council that Goita is "resolutely committed" to holding a referendum on a draft constitution in March, electing deputies to the National Assembly in October and November, and holding presidential elections in February 2024.
He said the government remains committed to defending its territory, protecting its people and implementing a 2015 peace agreement.
The peace agreement was signed by three parties - the government, a coalition of groups called the Coordination of Movements of Azawad that includes ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs who seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia known as the Platform - but the movements suspended participation in December.
Diop called their decision "regrettable" but said "we hope soon to reach a common understanding with our brothers from the signatory movements."
Secretary-General Guterres' internal review of MINUSMA called Mali "one of the most difficult operating environments for peacekeeping," citing significant air and ground restrictions imposed by Malian security authorities. The restrictions have exposed peacekeeping personnel "to security risks in an already dangerous environment in which 165 peacekeepers have been killed and 687 injured by hostile action since July 2013," he said.
The secretary-general said the mission's operations will come under additional pressure because four countries that have contributed troops are pulling them out, which will mean a loss of over 2,250 troops.
Guterres said MINUSMA's ability to deliver on its mandate - protecting civilians, supporting improvement of the security and political situation and monitoring human rights - will hinge on advances in the political transition, progress in implementing the peace agreement and freedom of movement for peacekeeper and their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
The secretary-general said expansion of MINUSMA's mandate in 2019 without additional manpower overstretched the mission and "the current situation is unsustainable."
He proposed three options: increasing the force by either 3,680 or 2,000 uniformed personnel; reconfiguring the force to support its existing priorities or to focus primarily on supporting the peace agreement; or ending the peacekeeping mission and transforming it into a political mission.
Mali's Diop said the U.N. chief's proposals don't meet Mali's aspirations for a more robust security operation which would include engaging in offensive actions and patrols, especially as part of its mandate to protect civilians.
On human rights, he said, the government "will staunchly oppose any and all instrumentalization and politicization of this issue," but will strive to protect rights.
Diop said the government participated in the internal review in the hope it would "respond to the deep aspirations of the Malian people."
"That has not come to pass," the foreign minister said. "However, the government of Mali remains open to dialogue with the United Nations in the coming months to ultimately identify the way ahead."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called security "the overriding priority" during Mali's transition "owing to the security vacuum resulting from a hasty withdrawal of French and European military units."
Nonetheless, he said, Malian forces over the last few months "have demonstrated that they can indeed achieve results in the fight against terrorism," adding that the Russian training "is bearing fruit."
When it comes to the options for reconfiguring MINUSMA, Nebenzia said, Mali's needs and opinion are "an overriding priority."
By contrast, U.S. envoy Mills expressed serious concern at the transitional government's restrictions on MINUSMA which make its extremely volatile operating environment more dangerous for peacekeepers and civilians.
He demanded that the government lift all restrictions, reiterating the internal review's conclusion that MINUSMA's success will hinge on the support it gets from the transitional authorities.
Mills said continued obstructions "should force this council to seriously reconsider its support for MINUSMA in its current form."