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European Mali mission faces dilemma as hostility grows

By Daphné BENOIT
Mali European special forces are being deployed in Mali under French leadership to help the country's anti-jihadist fight.  By Thomas COEX AFPFile
JAN 26, 2022 LISTEN
European special forces are being deployed in Mali under French leadership to help the country's anti-jihadist fight. By Thomas COEX (AFP/File)

France is intensifying talks with fellow European countries over a military tie-up in conflict-torn Mali that risks getting ensnared in a row between Paris and Bamako's junta.

Task Force Takuba is the fruit of lengthy French efforts to coax European allies into shouldering some of the burden of fighting jihadists in Mali, the nexus of a nearly decade-old insurgency in the Sahel.

Launched in March 2020, it brings together special forces from European countries, deployed under French leadership to advise Malian troops and assist them in combat.

Recent deployments have taken Takuba's numbers to nearly 900 men -- but the mission's future is now overshadowed by a spat between France and Mali.

Friction developed after a coup in Bamako in August 2020 toppled the country's elected president.

It has since worsened with the junta's reported plan to deploy Russian mercenaries -- a move that France says is "incompatible" with any continued French military presence.

France first deployed troops in northern Mali nine years ago, and later expanded the mission to a force of more than 5,000 men with a wider mandate across the Sahel.

In the latest episode, Mali's junta on Monday demanded Denmark's recently arrived Takuba contingent immediately withdraw, claiming it had deployed without the country's consent.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly lashed what she called the junta's "provocations", which came barely a week after Mali asked France to review bilateral defence accords.

She said the Danish deployment was carried out "on a legal basis, contrary to what the Malian junta says today".

Her Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod, said the group of around 100 soldiers received a "clear invitation" from the Malian government.

"Enhanced talks" are being launched among Takuba allies about "adapting to a new context", Parly said.

Italy's defence ministry confirmed that talks involving all of Takuba's participants discussed "the consequences that the level of instability has reached in Mali and its impact on operational plans".

A French source said the European allies were divided between those which refused to work with Mali's entrenched junta and others which were anxious to prevent Russian influence filling the void.

A military coup in Burkina Faso on Monday has added to France's problems. It is now the third military-ruled country, after Mali and Chad, where France's Barkhane military operation is deployed. Only Niger has an elected president.

Barkhane scaledown

Paris has already started reducing Barkhane's presence in northern Mali and hopes to halve the contingent by the summer of 2023.

Central to that plan is the role of Takuba, in providing support on the ground and sending a political signal of European solidarity.

But the angry dispute over Takuba will add to scrutiny of the strategy, with presidential elections in France looming in April and the country holding the current presidency of the EU.

Mounting tolls by jihadists and military takeovers make it harder for President Emmanuel Macron to argue that the mission is effective or at least is shoring up fragile democracies.

In 2015, jihadist raids spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. These have recently been followed by sporadic attacks on the northern borders of coastal countries on the Gulf of Guinea -- Ghana, Ivory Coast and Benin.

Deadly protests greeted a Mali-bound French convoy in Burkina Faso and Niger last year, and the government of Niger has signalled it will not host Takuba.

Banners and slogans hostile to France and favourable towards Russia were evident in recent anti-sanctions demonstrations in Mali and during a pro-military rally in Burkina Faso on Tuesday.

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