PARIS--A deal is close that would allow Russian mercenaries into Mali, extending Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa and triggering opposition from former colonial power France, seven diplomatic and security sources said.
Paris has begun a diplomatic drive to prevent the military junta in Mali enacting the deal, which would permit Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate in the former French colony, the sources said.
A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region said at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved. Two other sources believed the number was lower, but did not provide figures.
Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about 6 billion CFA francs ($10.8 million) a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train Malian military and provide protection for senior officials.
Reuters could not confirm independently how many mercenaries could be involved, how much they would be compensated, or establish the exact objective of any deal involving Russian mercenaries would be for Mali's military junta.
Reuters was unable to reach the Wagner Group for comment. Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who media outlets including Reuters have linked to the Wagner Group, denies any connection to the firm. His press service also says on its social networking site Vkontakte that Prigozhin has nothing to do with any private military company, has no business interests in Africa and is not involved in any activities there.
His press service did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment for this story.
France's diplomatic offensive, the diplomatic sources said, includes enlisting the help of partners including the United States to persuade Mali's junta not to press ahead with the deal, and sending senior diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks.
France is worried the arrival of Russian mercenaries would undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa at a time when it is seeking to draw down its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with more European partners, the diplomatic sources said.
The French foreign ministry also did not respond but a French diplomatic source criticised interventions by the Wagner Group in other countries. "An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts carried out by Mali’s Sahelian and international partners engaged in the Coalition for the Sahel for security and development of the region," the source said.