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France on Friday joined forces with 14 European nations as well as Canada to condemn the deployment in Mali of an estimated 1,000 operatives from the Russian-based Wagner Group.
The units were drafted in during the autumn after French president Emmanuel Macron announced the end of the decade-long Operation Barkhane and the phased withdrawal of 5,000 French troops.
The counter-terrorist operation was launched in 2013 in northern Mali and fanned out across the country into Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Geopolitical analysts as well as a raft of politicians in Africa queried the strategic sense of Macron's decision.
But units of the group – which has links to the security services of the Russian Federation – have been accused of a series of crimes.
“This deployment can only further deteriorate the security situation in west Africa, lead to an aggravation of the human rights situation in Mali, threaten the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali resulting from the Algiers process,” said the joint statement of the 16 countries.
The bloc also fears the Wagner Group's presence could hamper the efforts to provide support to the Malian armed forces.
The pressure has been mounting on the Wagner Group and its backers in the upper echelons of Russian politics.
On 13 December, the European Union sanctioned Wagner and 11 of its associates for its activities in Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic and Syria.
Two days later the US state department urged Malian authorities not to use their operatives.
“Countries that experience Wagner Group deployments within their borders soon find themselves poorer, weaker, and less secure,” said the US state department.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, has said private military contractors have the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as they do not break Russian law.
Putin has said the Wagner Group neither represented the Russian state nor was paid by it.
The 16-nation bloc, however, said it rejected denials of any links between the state and the group.
"We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner Group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behaviour in the region," it added.