Burkina Faso’s junta leader said Friday his country had not severed diplomatic ties with France, which he has asked to withdraw its forces, and denied Russian Wagner mercenaries were in the country.
Former colonial power France had special forces based in the capital Ouagadougou, but its presence had come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows, with Paris withdrawing its ambassador to Burkina over the junta’s demands.
“The end of diplomatic agreements, no!” Captain Ibrahim Traore said in a television interview with Burkinabe journalists. “There is no break in diplomatic relations or hatred against a particular state.”
Traore went on to deny that there were mercenaries from the Wagner Group deployed in Burkina Faso, even as the junta has nurtured ties with Moscow.
Wagner, an infamous Russian mercenary group founded in 2014, has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine.
“We’ve heard everywhere that Wagner is in Ouagadougou,” he said, adding that it was a rumour “created so that everybody would distance themselves from us”.
“We have our Wagner, it is the VDP that we recruit,” he said, referring to the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland civilian auxiliaries. “They are our Wagner.”
He said that “all the people want is their sovereignty, to live with dignity. It doesn’t mean leaving one country for another.”
Paris confirmed last month that its special forces troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadist insurgency, would leave within a month.
A landlocked country in the heart of West Africa’s Sahel, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s most volatile and impoverished countries.
It has been struggling with a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015.
Thousands of civilians, troops and police have been killed, more than two million people have fled their homes, and around 40 percent of the country lies outside the government’s control.
Anger within the military at the mounting toll sparked two coups in 2022, the most recent of which was in September, when 34-year-old Traore seized power.
He is standing by a pledge made by the preceding junta to stage elections for a civilian government by 2024.
After the ruling junta in Mali forced French troops out last year, the army officers running neighbouring Burkina Faso followed suit, asking Paris to empty its garrison.
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France was already drawing down its troops across the Sahel region, which just a few years ago numbered more than 5,000, backed up with fighter jets, helicopters and infantry fighting vehicles.
About 3,000 remain, but the forced departures from Mali and Burkina Faso — as well as the Central African Republic to the south last year — underline how anti-French winds are gathering force.