US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned against Russia’s Wagner mercenaries taking advantage of instability in coup-hit Niger, whose neighbor Mali has become a partner of Moscow.
In an interview with the BBC released Tuesday, Blinken doubted that Wagner — which in June staged a shadowy rebellion against President Vladimir Putin — plotted the Nigerien military’s July 26 ouster of the elected president, Western ally Mohamed Bazoum.
“I think what happened and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner,” Blinken said in the interview Monday, according to a transcript released by the State Department.
“But to the extent that they try to take advantage of it — and we see a repeat of what’s happened in other countries, where they’ve brought nothing but bad things in their wake — that wouldn’t be good,” he said.
“Every single place that this group, Wagner Group, has gone, death, destruction and exploitation have followed.”
Wagner has partnered with African nations including Mali and the Central African Republic, leading to wide accusations of abuses by rights groups and Western governments.
Military-run Mali has become the rare country to shift toward Russia diplomatically during the Ukraine war, in which Wagner has fought ruthlessly.
Mali and Burkina Faso — whose military leaders have also been accused of ties with Wagner — have sent envoys to Niger in solidarity with the coup leaders.
Niger has been the key base for US and French anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel, even more so with the withdrawal of French and other international forces from Mali.
Blinken’s acting deputy, Victoria Nuland, visited Niger on Monday and said the military leadership understood the “risks” of partnering with Wagner.