Sweden to withdraw from French-led special forces mission in Mali

BREST, France, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – Sweden will withdraw troops from a European special forces mission to the Sahel region this year and review its participation in a UN force in Mali due to the presence of private Russian military contractors, it said the Minister of Foreign Affairs .

Secretary of State Ann Linde criticized Mali’s military junta for trying to tighten its grip on power and hire Russian mercenaries.

“We have already decided that we will withdraw (from) Takuba’s armed forces this year,” Ann Linde told reporters on Friday on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in western France, referring to the European task force.

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“The question is what we do with Minusma,” she said, referring to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The Swedish parliament has approved the deployment of up to 150 soldiers to Takuba by 2020 and has some 250 soldiers as part of Minusma, which will run until 2024.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sweden’s departure from Takuba in March was in line with Stockholm pledges and had nothing to do with the arrival of mercenaries or the political situation in the country.

A French military source said Sweden always intended to withdraw its troops after two years and that its mandate ended in March. The source said Swedish officers would continue to be part of the mission.

Takuba was created as a partial successor to a French counter-terrorism operation in the West African Sahel region that French President Emmanuel Macron has begun to wind down from his initial 5,000-strong military force.

It includes some 14 European countries, providing special forces, logistical and tactical support to work alongside regional forces for targeted operations against Islamist militants.

RUSSIAN STUDENTS

Mali’s army-led interim government, which wants to extend its mandate for another five years, has accused Paris of giving up its mandate. Citing security needs, Mali hired private military contractors from Russia’s Wagner Group, whose members are mainly ex-service personnel.

France and its allies have said Mali’s use of the Wagner group was incompatible with their military presence.

The arrival of Russian mercenaries in Mali has heightened tensions between Europe and Russia amid a crisis on the border with Ukraine.

French officials have said Paris will discuss with its partners how to respond operationally to Wagner’s arrival in Mali.

Most of Takuba’s activities take place in the West African country.

Linde said Wagner’s confirmed arrival and the junta’s efforts to remain in power were unacceptable.

“We now know that (there) is the Wagner group … and if they have a stronger impact, it will not be possible to continue with those large numbers of troops of ours,” she said, adding that the Swedish parliament was to debate Sweden’s operations in Mali next week.

“Of course it has consequences.”

The European Union will impose sanctions on Mali in line with measures already taken by the ECOWAS group of West African states over the junta’s delay in holding elections after the 2020 coup, said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell Thursday.

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Writing by John Irish; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Frank Jack Daniel

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