Putin talks security with Malian leader in third phone call in two months

(Reuters) -Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed trade and security with Mali’s leader on Tuesday in their third phone conversation in less than two months, the Kremlin said.

The frequency of Putin’s contacts with Mali’s interim president Assimi Goita underlines Moscow’s strong interest in building its influence in the coup-prone Sahel region of West Africa where it is cultivating strong security ties at the expense of France and the United States.

The two leaders discussed their “mutual commitment to further strengthening trade and economic ties, security cooperation and the fight against terrorism”, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Goita echoed this in a post on social media and said: “I expressed my gratitude for all the support that Russia provides to Mali.”

Goita, a special forces commander, was one of several colonels who led a military coup in 2020. He then seized the interim presidency the following year.

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, whose leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash in August, has been active in supporting Goita’s administration in Mali.

Western governments and NGOs have accused Wagner of committing grave human rights abuses there and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East.

Wagner has won lucrative deals including rights to gold and diamond concessions in several African countries. Security analysts believe Moscow is keen to maintain its foothold on the continent after the demise of Prigozhin, who led a brief mutiny against Russia’s military leadership in June.

Mali is one of six African countries to which Putin promised to supply free grain at a summit in Russia in July. After meeting Goita there, he also spoke to him on Aug. 15 and Sept. 10, the Kremlin said.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; editing by Grant McCool)