BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pledged military support to Mali during his first visit to the West African nation Tuesday and dismissed criticism of Moscow's growing influence on the continent.
Russia has delivered "very large supplies of aviation equipment" to Mali over the past few months which has "significantly increased" the capability of local forces to fight extremists, Lavrov told journalists.
"We will now be planning additional steps in the field of education through military higher educational institutions and in the field of supplies of weapons and military equipment," Lavrov said, refusing to go into specifics.
Lavrov's trip to Bamako, Mali's capital, comes as Western countries express their concerns about alleged human rights abuses committed by Russian mercenaries working for the private military contractor Wagner Group.
The Russian foreign minister made no mention of Wagner by name during a press conference, but criticized unnamed Western powers of "neo-colonial approaches and double standards."
"We see the reaction of the Western states on the evolution of our relations and we see with regret that it is again negative, a negative attitude of the West to the principles of parity and mutual respect," Lavrov said.
Russia's presence in Mali has expanded as the role played by former colonizer France has diminished. After spending nine years helping Mali's army curb the spread of Islamic insurgents, France withdrew its forces last year after relations soured with the country's ruling junta.
Col. Assimi Goita seized power in a 2020 coup and disappointed international partners when he failed to hold elections on the timeframe he originally agreed to. As French support waned, Goita enlisted help from Moscow.
Mali's foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop on Tuesday again defended the government's cooperation with Russia, saying that collaboration with France "does not meet the objectives of Malians."
"We are not going to continue to justify our choice of partners," Diop said. "This decision is a decision of the Malians and a decision that is taken with full responsibility. And Mali wants to work with Russia."
Independent human rights experts working with the U.N. have called for an investigation into possible abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by government forces in Mali and the Wagner Group, which is owned by an oligarch with close ties to Russia's president.
The Pentagon has described the Wagner Group as a surrogate for the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.
Western officials say hundreds of fighters from the Wagner Group began working more than a year ago alongside Mali's armed forces to try to stem a decade-long insurgency by Islamic extremists in the West African country.
Diplomats, analysts, and human rights groups say indiscriminate violence against civilians has grown since the mercenaries arrived, warning that extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have only become stronger.
However, Mali's foreign minister said Tuesday that it should be Malian authorities and not outsiders assessing the reports of human rights violations.
"Human rights groups must stop being instruments used by those who want to destabilize Mali," Diop said, adding that "we are accused of human rights abuses often by disguised terrorists themselves."
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.
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