German soldiers in Mali spotted several dozen suspected Russian security forces in the city of Gao just as the last French soldiers left the country, the German government said Wednesday.
The German ambassador in Bamako has contacted Mali’s foreign minister about “the suspected presence of Russian uniformed forces in Gao,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
Gao is home to a contingent of German soldiers, not far from the former base occupied by the French.
A Russian presence in the city would be a development “that changes the mission environment,” the spokesman said, adding that the government was also discussing the matter with the United Nations.
France announced in February that it was withdrawing its troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta. That ended a near 10-year deployment against jihadist groups that pose a growing threat in West Africa.
The arrival of Russian paramilitaries in the country on the invitation of the government was a key factor in France’s decision to pull its military forces out.
The last French soldiers left Mali on Monday.
Germany’s government was also aware of an aircraft being used by Malian armed forces that “could possibly be an aircraft that was handed over by Russia,” said a defense ministry spokeswoman.
“We have received information that about 20 to 30 persons who were not associated with the Malian armed forces were seen loading and unloading this aircraft in a hangar” on Monday, the spokeswoman said.
The government is “intensively investigating” these reports, which concern a “training and ground combat aircraft of the L-39 type,” she said.
Germany on Friday said it had stopped reconnaissance operations and helicopter transport flights in Mali until further notice after Bamako denied flyover rights to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
But MINUSMA resumed contingent rotations from Monday under new approval procedures.
MINUSMA – the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – was launched in 2013 to help one of the world’s poorest countries cope with a bloody extremist campaign.
It is one of the UN’s biggest peacekeeping operations, with 17,609 troops, police, civilians and volunteers deployed as of April, according to the mission’s website.