PARIS/COPENHAGEN, European allies agreed on Friday to draw up plans within two weeks for how to continue their fight against Islamist militants in Mali, Denmark's defence minister said, after France said the situation with the Malian junta had become untenable.
Tensions have escalated between Mali and its international partners after the junta failed to organise an election following two military coups.
It has also deployed Russian private military contractors, which some European countries have said is incompatible with their mission.
"There was a clear perception that this is not about Denmark, it's about a Malian military junta which wants to stay in power. They have no interest in a democratic election, which is what we have demanded," Defence Minister Trine Bramse told Reuters.
She was speaking after a virtual meeting between the 15 countries involved in the European special forces Takuba task mission. She said the parties had agreed to come up with a plan within 14 days to decide on what the "future counter-terrorism mission should look like in the Sahel region".
The ministers held crisis talks after the junta insisted on the immediate withdrawal of Danish forces despite the 15 nations rejecting its claims that Copenhagen's presence was illegal.
"European, French and international forces are seeing measures that are restricting them. Given the situation, given the rupture in the political and military frameworks, we cannot continue like this," France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio earlier in the day, adding that the junta was out of control.
He said the Europeans needed to think about how to adapt their operations.
FRANCE FULL OF CONTEMPT
Speaking to France 24 TV, Malian Prime Minister Abdoulaye Diop said Le Drian's comments were "full of contempt" and Paris needed to act less aggressively and respect Mali.
"France's attitude needs to change... we are reviewing several defence accords and treaties to ensure they don't violate Mali's sovereignty. If that's not the case we will not hesitate to ask for adjustments."
He said that Paris welcomed military coups "when they served its interests," referring to a coup in neighbouring Chad that has drawn little resistance from France.
The junta's handling of Denmark is likely to impact future deployments, with Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Romania and Lithuania due to send troops this year. It raises questions about the broader future of French operations in Mali, where there are some 4,000 troops. Paris had staked a great deal on bringing European states to the region.
Colonel Arnaud Mettey, commander of France's forces in Ivory Coast, which backs up Sahel operations, told Reuters that the junta had no right to refuse Denmark's presence given agreed treaties.
"Either they are rejecting this treaty and so put into question our presence or they apply it," he said. "France and the European Union will not disengage from the Sahel. Takuba will carry on."
Diop said the departure of French troops was not on the table for now.
However, Denis Tull, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Paris may ultimately not be left with a choice.
"If this confrontation continues, there probably will simply be no political context in which the French transformation agenda for (France's counter-terrorism force) Barkhane can be applied and implemented as planned," he said.