Mali's ruling junta dismissed warnings by Western governments not to hire "mercenaries" from private Russian security firm Vagner, saying it will do as it sees fit.
France last week cautioned the West African nation against such a deal after unconfirmed reports the junta is close to hiring 1,000 paramilitaries to train its armed forces and protect officials.
Both France and Germany have said that a deal with Vagner would call into question their military commitments to the impoverished country.
"Regarding the intention ascribed to the Malian authorities to hire 'mercenaries,' the transition government led by the military invokes the exercise of its sovereignty,” Mali’s Foreign Ministry said in a September 19 statement.
Vagner is believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The group’s presence in Africa has been growing in recent years as the Kremlin seeks to expand its international influence amid a global retrenchment by Washington, analysts say.
Vagner is, or has been, present in Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and reportedly a few other African nations.
The military junta took power in Mali after overthrowing President Boubacar Keita in August 2020 and promised to hold elections in February 2022, which some now question.
The rumors of Mali hiring Vagner mercenaries comes after French President Emmanuel Macron in June announced that France plans to scale back its anti-jihadist forces in the region after more than eight years.
While the junta has not commented officially on the existence of contacts with Vagner, Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga alluded to them on September 16.
"There are partners who have decided to leave Mali...there are areas that have been abandoned," he said in reference to a redeployment of French forces in the Sahel. "Shouldn't we have a plan B?"
Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop met with Russian Ambassador to Mali and Niger Igor Gromyko on September 14, according to his Twitter feed.
The north of Mali fell under jihadist control in 2012 until they were pushed out of cities by France's military intervention in 2013.
However, the poor and landlocked nation home to at least 20 ethnic groups continues to battle jihadist attacks and intercommunal violence, which often spills over to neighbouring countries.