(Bloomberg) -- European defense ministers have joined France’s call for Mali to reconsider a possible plan to work with Russian mercenaries to fight jihadists in the West African nation.

Ministers representing the U.K. and a dozen European countries, including Germany, Spain and Italy, expressed “serious concern over the possible cooperation between Malian authorities and foreign mercenaries” after being briefed by France on the matter, according to a statement Friday. 

The West African gold producer has been a linchpin in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel, a region at the southern fringe of the Sahara. Groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State stepped up attacks against civilians and security forces in the second quarter of 2021, according to the United Nations.

France, which is gradually scaling back its military operation in the region, has threatened to pull out completely if Mali turns to the Wagner Group for support in its fight against terrorists. 

Malian authorities, which are seeking new partners, have declined to comment when asked if they were in talks with the group of Russian mercenaries headed by a confidante of President Vladimir Putin.

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