STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden will pull its force of about 220 soldiers out of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali in June 2023, a year earlier than planned, its military said on Thursday.
It gave no reason for the decision but has previously said that the presence of Russian military contractors in the West African state, condemned by European countries, was making the presence of Swedish forces untenable.
“In recent times, conditions have changed in the country, but until our last soldier is home, we continue to conduct operations just as usual,” the Swedish Armed Forces said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the mission known as MINUSMA said that Sweden plays a crucial role in its operations, but as a sovereign nation it is free to make its own peacekeeping decisions.
“We will continue our important work with the Swedish contingent until they leave,” the spokesperson said. “Regardless of Sweden’s participation, we hope they will continue to provide political support to the efforts of the United Nations in Mali.”
MINUSMA had about 12,000 troops on the ground in late 2021, according to its website.
There has been a broader departure of European forces from Mali led by former colonial ruler France, which said last month it was withdrawing its anti-militant taskforce after nearly a decade fighting Islamist insurgents.
Mali is ruled by a military junta that staged successive coups in 2020 and 2021 and has reneged on a promise to hold early elections, fraying its alliances with Western nations.
Despite the presence of the French and U.N. troops, violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has worsened in Mali in recent years and spread to neighbouring countries including Burkina Faso and Niger.
About 800 private contractors belonging to Russia’s Wagner Group are currently deployed in Mali, the Swedish military’s statement said, higher than the 300-400 that a French official estimated in January.
President Vladimir Putin said last month that the Russian government has no ties to Wagner. But more than a dozen people with links to Wagner have previously told Reuters that it has carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine, Libya and Syria.
(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; Additional reporting by Sofia Christensen in Dakar; Writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by John Stonestreet and Mark Heinrich)