A S HE HANDED over a large wooden key on December 14th, a French colonel symbolically passed control of a military base in Timbuktu to his Malian counterpart. The tricolore , which had flown over the camp in northern Mali since France sent troops there in 2013 to counter jihadists and separatists, was replaced by a Malian flag. The ceremony marked a milestone in a French plan to cut by almost half its 5,100-strong counter-terrorism force in the region, as it refocuses on training and supporting local troops in their battle against the extremists who have overrun swathes of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Yet soon after the French had left, a contingent of Russians moved in. They are but one element of a Russian force that is perhaps 450-strong, says a French military official, who adds that most are mercenaries from Wagner Group. This is a company founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a crony of President Vladimir Putin. It is reportedly being paid $10m a month in Mali, much of it under a goons-for-gold deal. Mali's government insists it has no hired guns fighting for it and that the Russians are there as trainers officially sent by their government. Yet… Read full this story
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