France on Monday again rejected accusations it was abandoning Mali by drawing down troops from the war-torn region.
“The transformation of our military dispositive in the Sahel is neither a departure from Mali nor a unilateral decision,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said.
“And it is false to affirm the contrary,” she added during an online briefing.
The comments came after Mali Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga accused Paris of walking away from the conflict-torn country with its decision to reduce troop numbers this year.
Maiga told the UN GeneralAssembly he regretted the “unilateral announcement”.
In Paris, the spokeswoman said France’s re-deployment in Mali followed “consultations with the Sahel and Mali authorities”.
Defence Minister Florence Parly had reaffirmed last Monday that France was not abandoning Mali.
In June, Paris began re-organising its forces, including by pulling out of its northernmost bases in Mali at Kidal, Timbuctu and Tessalit.
Total numbers in the region are to be cut from 5,000 today to between 2,500 and 3,000 by 2023.
The new head of the French Barkhane force in the area General Laurent Michon said the pull-back from the three bases in northern Mali had been worked out over the past 18 months to two years.
“It was planned with the heads of state of the G5 zone” — Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad — “in Bamako and in Niamey,” Michon told reporters in Nouakchott.
“France remains committed at the side of Mali and other states of the G5 Sahel, at their request, in the fight against terrorism which remains an absolute priority,” Legendre said.
She pointed out that on Friday France lost its 52nd soldier in combat in the Sahel since 2013.
Maiga charged that the French move justified his government “seeking other partners”, an apparent reference to Bamako having asked private Russian companies to boost security in the conflict-torn country.
France has warned Mali that hiring fighters from a Russian private-security firm would isolate the country internationally.
Mali’s army-dominated government in Bamako is reportedly close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries from Russia.
“Interventions in other countries by mercenaries from the private military company Wagner have resulted in serious human rights violations, exploitation of natural resources and people and a deterioration in the security situation, notably in central Africa,” the spokeswoman added.
The United Nations, which has 15,000 peacekeepers in Mali, has also expressed concern at the possible involvement of Wagner fighters