Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop met in Moscow on May 20, 2022
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop met in Moscow on May 20, 2022 AFP

Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Mali early Tuesday for talks with its junta leaders seeking Moscow's help in battling an Islamist insurgency that remains entrenched despite years of fighting.

Lavrov, who was in Iraq on Monday, was welcomed upon his arrival by his counterpart Abdoulaye Diop. The two men did not make any statements to journalists.

The visit of fewer than 24 hours will be his third trip to Africa since July, part of a bid to expand Russia's presence on the continent amid broad international isolation after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine last year.

Since taking control of Mali in two coups since August 2020, the military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita has embraced Russian support to aid its anti-jihadist fight after evicting the forces of former colonial ruler France.

Several Malian officials have travelled to Moscow, but the visit by Lavrov is "the first of its kind" aimed at cementing "a new dynamic" for security and economic cooperation between the two countries, according to Mali's foreign ministry.

Lavrov will hold talks Tuesday with Goita, as well as with foreign affairs minister Diop, and a press conference is scheduled afterwards.

Mali has already received planes and attack helicopters from Moscow as well as several hundred Russian soldiers described by Mali's leaders as instructors who are helping to reinforce its defence and sovereignty.

Western officials and some rights groups say the fighters are actually paramilitaries with the Wagner group, who have been accused of brutal tactics and rights abuses elsewhere in Africa.

Mali's leaders have claimed successes against Islamists that have targeted the government for 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, have cast doubt on the claims, noting persistent attacks in the north and northeast of the country.

On Monday, the UN rights chief Volker Turk denounced Mali's expulsion of the agency's top human rights representative over the weekend, saying his work was "more crucial than ever".

Lavrov's visit also comes amid uncertainty about whether Goita will stick to his agreement for a 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 signing a peace deal in 2015, said it was pulling out of efforts to draft a new constitution, accusing the junta of foot-dragging.

Mali's new Russian allies are also accused by rights groups and witnesses of abuses against civilians, including by the UN's human rights envoy, which prompted 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 carried out by the armed forces.

As tensions with the international community rise, Moscow is hoping to seize a chance to expand its influence in the troubled region, with analysts noting that several African nations have declined to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In January, Lavrov slammed the West while accusing the US and its allies of "colonial methods" as he visited Angola, South Africa and Eswatini, insisting that Moscow sought relations on the continent built on "solidarity and support".