Burkina Faso’s interim president, Ibrahim Traore, on Thursday said Russia has become a key strategic ally but denied that Russian mercenaries are supporting Burkinabe forces in their fight against armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
Ouagadougou’s relations with Moscow are in the spotlight as anti-French sentiment rises in parts of the region. In February, the West African country evicted French troops after ending an accord that allowed France to fight armed groups there since 2013.
During a rare televised interview on Thursday, Traore was asked about Burkina Faso’s international allies in the conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced about 2.5 million in the broader Sahel region over the past decade.
“The departure of the French army does not mean that France is not an ally,” Traore replied. “But we have strategic allies too. We have new forms of cooperation. Russia, for example, is a strategic ally.”
He said Russia was a major supplier of military equipment and would remain so without giving further details.
“I am satisfied with the cooperation with Russia. It’s frank,” he said, sitting on an ornate chair in military fatigues and a beret.
Western countries are concerned about Russia’s increasing sway in the Sahel and nearby regions. France withdrew its forces from Mali last year after the military government there started working with the Russian military contractor Wagner Group to fight armed groups.
France had been there since 2013, but failure to root out the rebels led to Malians’ disenchantment with their former colonisers.
Traore was asked to comment on reports that Wagner forces are also on the ground in Burkina Faso.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged in December that his neighbour had hired the mercenaries, and Burkina Faso summoned Ghana’s ambassador to protest.
“Our army fights alone,” Traore said. “Wagner’s presence was invented to harm Burkina, so countries would not cooperate with us.”
The instability in Burkina Faso triggered two coups last year by the military, which has promised to retake control of the country but has so far failed to stop attacks.
Unrest in the region began in neighbouring Mali in 2012 when rebels hijacked a Tuareg separatist uprising. The violence has since spread into Burkina Faso and Niger, and experts have warned that it could destabilise coastal countries farther afield.