The case torments the pilots of Air France. Thursday, March 16, the main union of pilots of the French airline, which rotates daily between Paris and the Malian capital, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that it had called on its members to “exercise their right of withdrawal” to no longer fly to Bamako. The concern about the impact that the existence of a new Russian surface-to-air missile system could have in Mali, expressed by the American civil aviation agency (FAA) on its website at the end of February, seems to have motivated this unprecedented trade union appeal.
In these two press releases issued on February 23, the government agency responsible for regulating American civil aviation warned airlines registered in the United States against “potential risk” what the Malian airspace now represented, in particular because of “the introduction of an advanced air defense system” in Mali by the mercenaries of Wagner, a Russian private security group which began to deploy in the country at the end of December 2021.
In the process, the two notes were commented on social networks by accounts of Internet users accustomed to singing the praises of the junta and the Russo-Malian military cooperation, in full expansion since the installation in power of the colonels following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021.
A “radar-guided surface-to-air missile system”
“The United States confirms the over-armament of Mali”, one of them believed to be on TikTok on March 6, while another scrolled through the Chinese video application of photos of missiles accompanied by captions presenting Mali as a country “ now unassailable by surprise or incursion “, thanks to that “anti-missile battery remotely controlled by radar guidance capable of intercepting aircraft crossing Malian airspace”.
Far from these rantings, the FAA specified in its press releases that Wagner had deployed in Mali, in the spring of 2022, “more than 1,000 private soldiers as well as as various weapon capabilities, such as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) [acronyme utilisé pour désigner des drones] and more sophisticated air defense systemss”.
The American regulatory body mentioned in particular the presence in Bamako of a “radar-guided surface-to-air missile system capable of attacking targets up to 15,000 meters with a range of 36 kilometers” and thus invited American companies to “exercise caution” “at all altitudes including when flying over the airspace, during the landing and take-off phases and at the airport, on the ground”.
Because Wagner, recalls the regulatory body, “has a questionable history of air defense fire”especially in Libya, where this anti-aircraft device named Pantsir would have led Russian mercenaries to “fratricidal incidents” on misdirected shots.
“To show the muscles”
Air France, contacted by AFP, does not seem to be overly concerned since “to At this stage, service to Bamako is unchanged”. In the Malian capital, European diplomats joined by The world are also cautious. According to one of them, this new air defense equipment would have been acquired by the Malian junta from its new Russian allies. ” few months ago “ and has not been used since. “The colonels deployed it above all to flex their muscles and symbolize their supposed regained military power, not to hit civilian planes, that would be suicide. They know it would expose them to retaliation “, he slips.
Washington, for its part, believes that Pantsir has ” probably ” been deployed to Mali to “counter the possible use of UAS [drones] by extremists. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS, affiliated with the Islamic State organization), one of the two jihadist groups which, together with Al-Qaeda, has continued to extend its hold in the country since the start of the war in 2012, would indeed, still according to the FAA, “claimed responsibility for shooting down a Wagner UAS with an unknown anti-aircraft weapon on July 16, 2022.”
In Mali, several diplomatic and security sources questioned the real motives that prompted the United States to communicate on these Wagner missile systems in Mali. “If they were really worried about their American companies, they would have directly banned them from Malian airspace,” remarks the security officer of a Western NGO. Like others, the latter sees it more as a way for Washington to “give Wagner an extra blow”, whereas in recent weeks, the American administration has gone on the offensive in Africa by deploying a strategy of struggle to counter the influence deemed harmful by Russian mercenaries on the continent.