Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Mali early Tuesday for talks with junta leaders seeking Moscow’s help in fighting an Islamist insurgency that remains entrenched despite years of fighting.

Lavrov, who was in Iraq on Monday, was greeted upon his arrival by his colleague Abdulai Diop. The two men did not make statements to journalists.

The visit in less than 24 hours will be his third trip to Africa since July, part of an expansion drive Russia’s presence on the continent comes amid widespread international isolation following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

After taking control of Mali in two coups since August 2020, the military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita has accepted Russian support to help its fight against jihadists after ousting the forces of the former French colonial ruler.

Several Malian officials have visited Moscow, but Lavrov’s visit is the “first of its kind” aimed at cementing a “new dynamic” for security and economic cooperation between the two countries, Mali’s foreign ministry said.

Lavrov will hold talks with Goita and Foreign Minister Diop on Tuesday, after which a press conference is scheduled.

Mali has already received jets and attack helicopters from Moscow, as well as several hundred Russian soldiers, whom Mali’s leaders describe as instructors helping to strengthen the country’s defenses and sovereignty.

Western officials and some rights groups say the fighters are actually Wagner’s paramilitary groups, which are accused of brutal tactics and rights abuses elsewhere in Africa.

Mali’s leaders have claimed success in fighting Islamists who have targeted the government over the past decade, a crisis that has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

But foreign observers, including the United Nations, cast doubt on those claims, noting ongoing attacks in the north and northeast of the country.

On Monday, UN human rights chief Volker Turk condemned the expulsion of the human rights agency’s top representative from Mali over the weekend, saying his work was “more important than ever”.

A diplomatic coup

Lavrov’s visit also comes amid uncertainty over whether Goyta will stick to his agreement to return to civilian rule in March 2024, especially if the security crisis continues.

Last month, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a predominantly Tuareg alliance that fought the state for years before a peace deal was signed in 2015, said it was abandoning the drafting of a new constitution, accusing the junta of stalling.

Rights groups and witnesses also accuse Mali’s new Russian allies of abuses against civilians, including the UN human rights envoy, prompting his order to leave the country.

The military regime has repeatedly blocked attempts by the UN peacekeeping force MINUSMA to investigate reports of human rights abuses by the armed forces.

As tensions rise with the international community, Moscow hopes to seize the chance to extend its influence in the restive region, with analysts saying several African countries have refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In January, during a visit to Angola, the Republic of South Africa and Eswatini, Lavrov criticized the West, accusing the US and its allies of “colonial methods”, insisting that Moscow seeks relations on the continent built on “solidarity and support”.

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