Mali accuses France of arming Islamist fighters in letter to U.N

·2 min read
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop meet in Moscow

BAMAKO (Reuters) -Mali says France has violated its airspace and delivered arms to Islamist militants in an attempt to destabilise the West African country, the latest in a barrage of accusations that have marked the bitter end to their once close relations.

In a letter to the head of the United Nations Security Council dated Monday, Mali's foreign affairs minister, Abdoulaye Diop, said its airspace has been breached more than 50 times this year, mostly by French forces using drones, military helicopters and fighter jets.

"These flagrant violations of Malian airspace were used by France to collect information for terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and to drop arms and ammunition to them," the letter said.

Mali provided no evidence to show that France had supplied arms to Islamist groups. France has spent a decade and billions of dollars to stamp out Islamist militants, some with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State, in its former colony.

"France has obviously never supported, directly or indirectly, these terrorist groups, which remain its designated enemies across the planet," said the French Embassy in Mali, in a Twitter thread.

It said that 53 French soldiers had died during its nine-year mission in Mali and that France had killed hundreds of Islamist fighters in order to improve security for Malians. France has also suffered Islamist attacks at home, it added.

The accusations mark a new low in relations just as France pulls the last of its troops out of Mali and Russian mercenaries hired by Mali's military government expand their reach. The swap worries western powers who see their influence slipping in the Sahel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed possibly supplying food, fertilisers and fuel to Mali in a call with the country's interim president last week.

German U.N. soldiers said they saw Russian forces landing at the airport and unloading equipment on Monday in the northern town of Gao, the day the last French soldiers left.

French forces were welcomed as heroes in Mali in 2013 when they beat back Islamist groups that had taken over the north, including the fabled city of Timbuktu.

But a series of setbacks and prolonged attacks by the militants have soured relations, which became worse since a military junta overthrew the government in 2020 and later overthrew an interim civilian cabinet.

(Reporting by Fadima Kontao; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Nellie Peyton; Editing by Edward McAllister, Hugh Lawson and Diane Craft)