French army rejects Mali’s accusations of espionage, violation of airspace

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The French army on Thursday rejected accusations by Mali of espionage and violation of the West African nation's airspace.

Mali had on Tuesday accused the French army of "spying" and "subversion" when it used a drone to film what France alleged were mercenaries burying bodies near a military base.

The drone "illegally" flew over the Gossi base on April 20, the day after French forces handed the site back to Mali, the ruling junta said in a statement.

The following day, the French army shared a video it said showed Russian mercenaries covering bodies with sand to falsely accuse the departing troops of war crimes. Two soldiers could be seen filming the half-buried corpses.

French army spokesman Pascal Ianni told reporters in Paris on Thursday that "we were in our right since Gossi was not in the temporary prohibition zone," for overflying.

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Ianni noted that the temporary no-fly zone had been extended to include Gossi on Wednesday.

France, Mali's former colonial power, is winding down its almost decade-long, anti-jihadist military operation in the West African state.

But in February, it decided to pull out its troops after falling out with the military junta, especially over its rapprochement with the Kremlin.

Mali says France violating its airspace to 'spy' on troops

France officially handed control of Gossi to Mali last week as part of the staggered withdrawal.

But under the existing agreement to station French forces in Mali, concluded in March 2013, they "have total freedom of movement and action in the fight against armed terrorist groups," Colonel Ianni stressed.

Responding to the espionage accusation, the army spokesman said the French action had "avoided a major informational attack".

"If we had not managed to capture these images, French forces would have been accused of war crimes," he said.

France and the United States have accused mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked security firm Wagner of deploying in Mali, where the junta claims the Russians are just military instructors helping to restore order.

Vast swathes of Mali lie beyond government control because of the jihadist insurgency, which began in 2012 before spreading three years later to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

The impoverished and landlocked Sahel state has been ruled by a military junta since an August 2020 coup that was propelled by protests against the government's handling of the war against the jihadists.

The conflict was said to have led to thousands of military and civilian deaths and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The junta initially promised to restore civilian rule, but it failed to meet an earlier commitment to West African bloc ECOWAS to hold elections in February this year, prompting regional sanctions.


Artmotion S.Africa

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