Flight paths, satellite images indicate Russia is deploying mercenaries in Mali

The flight path of a plane with links to the Russian private security firm Wagner Group, travelling between Moscow and Bamako between December 19 and 20, 2021.
The flight path of a plane with links to the Russian private security firm Wagner Group, travelling between Moscow and Bamako between December 19 and 20, 2021. © Twitter/Gerjon

On December 23, Mali was accused by several of its international partners, including France, of allowing mercenaries from the Russian private security firm Wagner Group into its territory. Though the Malian government denied the accusations, several Russian military airplanes have flown between Bamako and Russia over the past few months.

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Flight records and satellite images show new military installations next to the airport, supporting the theory that the Wagner Group is currently deploying in Mali. 

On December 23, 2021, France and allied countries including Canada, Germany and the UK published a joint statement claiming that the private Russian security firm, which employs mercenaries in countries including Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic, was now moving into Mali.

“We, international partners dedicated to supporting Mali and its people [...] firmly condemn the deployment of mercenaries on Malian soil,” the statement said.

But on December 25, the Malian government issued a statement saying it "gives a formal denial to these baseless allegations" of "an alleged deployment of elements from a private security company in Mali".

Government sources cited in an article published by French daily Le Monde on December 24, 2021, said the allegation of a Wagner deployment was based on factors including the development of a new military base near Bamako airport as well as “suspicious flight patterns”. 

Using social media and online tools, the FRANCE 24 Observers team was able to identify several Russian military planes that flew between Moscow, Syria, Libya and Bamako over the past three months. There are also satellite images of the Bamako airport that show new installations. 

Flights between Moscow and Bamako raise suspicions

We were able to examine flight paths using the site Flightradar24 (click here to find out how), which records flight paths in real time. The site shows several planes travelling between Russia and Bamako Airport. 

Twitter user Gerjon, who regularly tracks flights on Flightradar24, has been following planes taking this route. Between December 19 and 20, 2021, for example, Gerjon followed the flight path of a TU-154M Tupolev – a passenger plane – that left Damascus in Syria and arrived in Bamako after stopping in Libya. This plane has the registration number RA-85042.

 

Using the registration number RA-85042, we were able to track the plane’s recent flight path. Flightradar24 shows us that this Tupolev left Moscow on December 19 and flew to Damascus. After a stop in Libya, the plane reached Bamako on December 20. The same day, the plane took off and did the same trip in the opposite direction, flying to Damascus and then Moscow. 

This screengrab from flight tracker FlightRadar24 shows the latest flight paths of the RA-85082 airplane.
This screengrab from flight tracker FlightRadar24 shows the latest flight paths of the RA-85082 airplane. © FlightRadar24

According to several sites listing airplane registration numbers, this Tupolev TU-154M belongs to the Russian Air Force. 

A plane that often carries out suspicious flights

This flight between Moscow and Bamako raises additional suspicions for several reasons. First, because the “governmental sources” cited by Le Monde in the December 24 article said that about 40 Russian military soldiers had arrived in Mali “several days ago".

Jack Margolin, a member of C4ADS, an NGO dedicated to analysing conflicts using data, told us that the RA-85042 aircraft belongs to the 223rd Flight Unit of the Russian Air Force. The United Nations suspects that this branch of the Russian Air Force has been used on several occasions to transport troops and supplies for the Wagner Group. The UN documented some of these suspicious flights in a report published in March 2021 about clashes that have taken place in Libya over the past few years.

Screengrab from a report published by a group of UN experts about events in Libya in 2021.
Screengrab from a report published by a group of UN experts about events in Libya in 2021. © UN

In 2020, the Wagner group and several of its subsidiaries used several Tupolev TU-154M planes from the 223rd unit of the Russian Air Force, according to this report.

The report documents several Russian planes travelling between Damascus and Libya in early 2020, a time when the Wagner Group was receiving new supplies. One of those planes was RA-85042. Between January 4 and 6, 2020, the plane carried out two trips between Benghazi Airport in Libya and the Russian military base in Latakia, Syria.

Flightradar24 also shows that in 2021, RA-85042 made several trips to Syria and Libya, two combat zones in which Wagner is known to operate. The RA-85042 also landed in the Central African Republic after a stop in Syria. On October 2, 2021, it was photographed in the airport in Bangui, the Central African capital. Russian military instructors with links to Wagner have been training the Central African army since 2018 and, on December 15, 2021, the European Union suspended its training missions of Central African soldiers because of “a lack of assurance that Central African soldiers won’t go on to be employed by Wagner mercenaries".

This photo taken on October 2, 2021 and posted on Facebook, shows Russian plane RA-85042 (on the right) parked at Bangui airport, with its registration number visible.
This photo taken on October 2, 2021 and posted on Facebook, shows Russian plane RA-85042 (on the right) parked at Bangui airport, with its registration number visible. © Brice Ekomo, Centrafriquenews

Margolin says these flights to Libya and the Central African Republic only add to ongoing suspicions. 

“We can’t definitively cross out the possibility that these planes transported other types of cargo,” he said. “But the path that they took from Syria and the fact that they are part of the 223rd Air Unit are, for me, the most solid proof that I have seen that Wagner could be deploying in Mali.”

Not an isolated incident

Other flights from Russia to Bamako, aside from the RA-85042 flight on December 20, 2021, have also been recorded. On September 30, the Gerjon Twitter account tracked another Russian plane going to Bamako. After taking off from Russia, this plane stopped in Egypt before flying on to Mali. 

The next day, the official Twitter account of the Malian armed forces announced the arrival of four new combat helicopters as well as new ammunition – purchased from Russia by the Malian government. Photos show a helicopter being carried inside an Antonov 124-100 plane. While this delivery was carried out by the Russian army and not the Wagner Group, it shows the rising influence of Russia in terms of security in Mali. 

"Colonel Sadio Camara, the Minister of Defense and Former Soldiers, accepted four Type Mi-171 armored helicopters in the name of Colonel Assimi Goïta, the transitional president and supreme leader of the armed forces, on October 1, 2021," reads this tweet in French from the Malian Armed Forces.

 

Other videos posted on October 7 and November 19 show a Russian airplane of the same model in the same place in Bamako Airport. The first image shows helicopters on the tarmac next to the Antonov. The second shows Malian soldiers unloading the plane next to two white men. The FRANCE 24 Observers team was not able to determine the date when these two videos were filmed. 

“Here is a video showing 4 MI-171 helicopters as well as weapons and ammunition given to Mali by the Russian Federation. The contract, signed in December 2020, went into effect in June 2021. Macron is preparing for the worst …” reads this post in French from the Morocco Post.

Publiée par Bakary Diarra sur Vendredi 19 novembre 2021

New military installations near the airport 

Le Monde reported that new military installations near Bamako Airport have also raised concerns among France and its partners. “Military installations that could house a number of mercenaries” have been observed just south of the airport, near Base 101 of the Malian Air Force, the newspaper reported.

If you take a closer look at the satellite images available on Google Earth, you can see that a plot of land has been cleared near the 101 base since September.

The satellite image on the left shows the 101 air base at Bamako Airport on September 17, 2021. The image on the right was taken on the same base on November 6, 2021. In the interval, it is apparent that vegetation was cleared from a large piece of land.
The satellite image on the left shows the 101 air base at Bamako Airport on September 17, 2021. The image on the right was taken on the same base on November 6, 2021. In the interval, it is apparent that vegetation was cleared from a large piece of land. © Google Earth

A closer look at the image taken on November 6 shows about 15 tents and several vehicles on a new plot of land. 

The satellite image on the left shows several military installations. Zooming in, tents are revealed in the upper right and vehicles in the lower right.
The satellite image on the left shows several military installations. Zooming in, tents are revealed in the upper right and vehicles in the lower right. © Google Earth

Le Monde reported that there were “a dozen military tents”, “several trucks used to transport troops” and “about 60 armoured vehicles” at Base 101. The reason for these military installations is still unknown. 

UPDATE 6/1/22: A more recent satellite image from December 3, 2021 was provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers team by Planet Labs. It shows that several additional buildings have been constructed since November.

This satellite image of Air Force Base 101 near the Bamako airport in Mali is dated December 3, 2021.
This satellite image of Air Force Base 101 near the Bamako airport in Mali is dated December 3, 2021. © 2022 Planet Labs PBC