US sanctions head of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali, accused of arms trafficking for Ukraine fight

May 25, 2023, 1:01 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. on Thursday sanctioned the leader of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group in Mali, citing what it said were indications that the Kremlin was trying to use the West African nation as a way-station for arms shipments to Russian forces in Ukraine.

The Treasury Department sanctions target Wagner Group local official Ivan Maslov and refer to unspecified signs that his staffers were working to buy mines, drones and other weapons systems from foreign suppliers for delivery to Russian fighters in Ukraine.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller addressed those U.S. suspicions earlier in the week. “We have not seen, as of yet, any indications that these acquisitions have been finalized or executed, but we are monitoring the situation closely,” Miller said.

Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Wagner Group is a private military contractor whose paramilitary forces are fighting for Russia in Ukraine and are also expanding Russia’s influence in developing nations of the southern hemisphere.

In Africa, the Wagner Group has brokered deals in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and elsewhere, providing security for what are often autocratic national leaders, frequently in exchange for a share of local mining of gold and other resources.

Regional experts and others accuse the Kremlin of using its operations in Mali and elsewhere in Africa as a funding source and logistics hub for its 15-month-old invasion of Ukraine. Russia denies wrongdoing.

The U.S. has sanctioned the Wagner Group and its leaders over Russia’s attack on Ukraine and rights abuses at least since 2017.

The United States also imposed visa restrictions Thursday on two Malian military commanders. The penalties came in connection with a 2022 massacre in which the U.N. says Malian forces backed by foreign fighters killed at least 500 people in a village in central Mali. France and other countries have said the foreign fighters were Wagner mercenaries.

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US sanctions head of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali, accused of arms trafficking for Ukraine fight