By Ardee Napolitano and John Irish
BREST, France (Reuters) -Sweden will withdraw troops this year from a European special forces mission to the Sahel region and will review its participation in a U.N. force in Mali over the presence of private Russian military contractors, the foreign minister said.
Foreign Minister Ann Linde criticized Mali’s military junta for trying to extend its grip on power and for hiring the Russian mercenaries.
“We have already decided that this year we will withdraw (from) the force of Takuba,” Ann Linde told reporters on Friday on the sidelines of an EU foreign ministers meeting in western France, referring to the European task force.
“The question is what do we do with Minusma,” she said, referring to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.
The Swedish parliament approved the deployment of up to 150 soldiers to Takuba in 2020 and it has some 250 military personnel as part of Minusma, which runs until 2024.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sweden’s departure from Takuba in March was in line with Stockholm’s commitments and had nothing to do with the arrival of mercenaries or the political situation in the country.
A French military source said Sweden had always planned to withdraw troops after two years and that its mandate ended in March. The source said Swedish officers would remain part of the mission.
Takuba was established as a partial successor to a French counter-terrorism operation in the West African Sahel region that French President Emmanuel Macron has started to reduce from its initial 5,000-strong force.
It comprises some 14 European countries, which provide special forces, logistical and tactical support to work alongside regional troops for targeted operations against Islamist militants.
Mali’s military-led interim government, which wants to extend its mandate for five years, has accused Paris of abandoning it. Citing security needs, Mali hired private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group, whose members are mostly 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 added to tensions between Europe and Russia amid a crisis on Ukraine’s border.
French officials have said Paris will discuss with its partners how to respond operationally to the arrival of Wagner in Mali.
Most of Takuba’s operations are in the west African country.
Linde said the confirmed arrival of Wagner and the junta’s efforts to stay in power were unacceptable.
“We now know (there) is the Wagner group … and if they have a stronger impact then it will not be possible to continue with those large numbers of troops from us,” she said, adding that the Swedish parliament would debate Sweden’s operations in Mali next week.
“Of course it will have consequences.”
The European Union will impose sanctions on Mali in line with measures already taken by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states over the junta’s delay in holding elections following the 2020 coup, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Thursday.
(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Frank Jack Daniel)