Mali says Russia's Lavrov to visit to strengthen defense ties
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will pay a two-day visit to Mali this week, the Malian foreign ministry said on Sunday, describing the visit as a reflection of a shared wish to strengthen defence and security ties.
Lavrov will arrive in Bamako on Monday. It is the first time a Russian foreign minister has officially visited the West African nation and reflects Moscow's focus on extending its reach on the continent while it is at loggerheads with Western powers over its invasion of Ukraine.
Since coming to power in a 2020 coup, Mali's ruling military junta has turned to Moscow even as it sparred with neighbours and Western nations over election delays and its decision to work with Russian mercenaries to combat an Islamist insurgency.
"This high-level visit is in line with the political choice made by the Transitional Government to expand and diversify strategic partnerships," the Malian ministry said in a statement.
Lavrov's visit shows "the firm will of the Malian and Russian heads of state to give new impetus to the relations of friendship and bilateral cooperation ... in priority areas, in particular defence and security," the ministry said.
Mali is engaged in a fight against militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State who have waged a decade-long insurgency that has spread to neighbouring countries.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Mali that Moscow was committed to strengthening cooperation to help root out the militants. It has also promised shipments of fuel, fertiliser and food worth around $100 million.
Mali's growing friendliness with Russia has coincided with a breakdown in relations with France, the former colonial power. Last year, the rift led Paris to withdraw all its troops that had been battling militants since 2013.
U.N experts last Tuesday called for an independent investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by Malian government forces and Russian private military contractor Wagner Group.
Mali has previously said Russian forces in the country are not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia.
Lavrov is currently in Baghdad for talks on improving bilateral ties and energy cooperation.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by David Holmes)