Burkina Faso’s interim President Ibrahim Traore has assured U.S. diplomats that he has no intention of inviting Russian Wagner forces to fight militants in the country.
The U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday.
There has been concern that Burkina Faso might follow the lead of neighbouring Mali, which late last year hired mercenary fighters from Russia’s Wagner group to help its army fight, Islamist insurgents.
Security has deteriorated since Wagner entered Mali, rights abuses have been reported and United Nations peacekeepers have been squeezed out, said Nuland, who has just returned to the United States from a West Africa tour.
“We had a chance to sit with interim President Traore and his leadership team, including his defence minister. He was unequivocal in saying that only the Burkinabe would defend their country. They have no intention of inviting Wagner,” she said at a digital media briefing.
Jihadist groups – some with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State – have been waging an insurgency in the Sahel region south of the Sahara over the past decade, gaining ground despite the presence of foreign troops and U.N. peacekeepers.
Thousands have been killed and over two million displaced as the insurgency that took root in Mali spread to neighbouring countries and more recently to coastal nations south of the Sahel.
Frustrations over growing insecurity have spurred two military coups in Mali since August 2020 and two in Burkina Faso this year.
Nuland warned that insecurity would challenge the transition process but said “at least the civilians responsible for the election appear to be keeping the preparations on track”.
Relations between Mali and the West have soured over the junta’s reticence to hold elections and its collaboration with the Russian mercenaries, which the U.N. has accused of summarily executing civilians and other human rights violations alongside Malian soldiers.
Mali and Russia have repeatedly denied this.
Wagner, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, Mali and other countries. It was founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and started supporting pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Nuland said “incidents of terror” have increased by around 30% over the past six months in Mali and Russian equipment is “malfunctioning”, she added, citing a Russian-made military plane that crashed in the northern city of Gao on Oct. 4.
“The United States’ ability to help Mali on the security side is greatly constrained,” she said, noting that peacekeepers were barred from large swathes of the country’s insurgent-hit centre.