French Accuse Russia-Backed Vagner Group Fighters Of 'Despoiling' Mali

France's foreign minister has accused a Russia-backed mercenary group of plundering the resources of the West African nation of Mali.

Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a newspaper interview published on January 30 that fighters from the Vagner Group, aka Wagner, which he said includes -- "former Russian soldiers, armed by Russia, and accompanied by Russian logistics” -- are “despoiling Mali."

"They are already at the moment using the country's resources in exchange for protecting the junta,” he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

"Vagner uses the weakness of certain states to implant itself ... to reinforce Russia's influence in Africa," Le Drian added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the mercenary group does not represent the Russian state and is not paid by it. He has also 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.

France, Germany, Canada, and Britain have troops in Mali fighting against an Islamist insurgency in the African country.

However, the mission became endangered after Mali slid into political turmoil two years ago, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

France, Germany, Canada, and Britain and 11 other nations late last year said in a joint statement that they "firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory."

On December 15, the United States warned Mali against deploying Vagner forces, saying a reported deal between the country and the private military contractor would divert money away from efforts to fight terrorism and could ultimately destabilize the region.

Mali's government denied any deployment of fighters from the Vagner Group and called the personnel “Russian trainers.”

Le Drian did not say whether the presence of Vagner Group personnel could lead to the withdrawal of French troops fighting the Islamist insurgency in Mali.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said on January 29 that European states fighting the militants there would seek ways to keep the mission going. But she added that there were limits to the price that France is prepared to pay to remain.