Elections scheduled for early next year in Mali could be postponed by months, the prime minister told AFP on Sunday, adding that he was looking for alternative security partners to France as it prepares to reduce its troop presence in the conflict-torn country.
"The main thing for us is less to hold them on February 27 than to hold elections that will not be contested," Choguel Kokalla Maiga said in an interview in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
He suggested the presidential and legislative elections could be postponed by "two weeks, two months, a few months," adding that a decision will be taken in October following a meeting of a national forum.
"At the end we will issue a more detailed agenda," Maiga said.
"It is better to organize peaceful elections, recognized by all, rather than to organize elections that will be disputed," the prime minister added.
The elections, promised for February 2022 by strongman Colonel Assimi Goita, are aimed at restoring civilian rule following a coup in August last year against elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
The military then appointed an interim civilian government tasked with steering back to democratic rule.
But Goita deposed the civilian leaders of the interim government in May -- in a second coup -- and was later declared president himself.
He has pledged to respect the February deadline for civilian elections set by the interim government, which also set October 31 as a date for holding a constitutional referendum.
But earlier this month, the West African bloc ECOWAS said it feared a potential delay.
The calendar for the elections "was fixed on the requirements of ECOWAS without posing questions about what practical steps must be taken to get there," said Maiga.
"We have decided to be pragmatic, to be realistic," he continued.
"It is very important to be realistic in politics, to be pegged to national public opinion which is today in favor of credible and peaceful elections," Maiga added.
Rampant insecurity in Mali, and the scale of the task, has cast doubt on its reform timetable.
The violence-torn country was already struggling with a bloody jihadist conflict before it slid into political turmoil.
Swathes of the vast nation lie outside of government control because of a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in the north in 2012, before spreading to the centre of the country, as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
- Wagner 'rumors' -
Asked about UN criticism at the slow speed of the peace and reconciliation agreement signed with rebels in 2015, Maiga promised that the state "continues to respect it."
He noted however that the situation in the country had "got worse."
Then "insecurity was in Kidal (in the north). Today, two thirds of the country are invaded by terrorists," Maiga said in the interview.
The prime minister ripped into France during his address to the General Assembly on Saturday, accusing Paris of abandoning it by preparing a large troop drawdown.
France is due to reduce the number of its troops in the Sahel from 5,000 currently to 2,500 or 3,000 by 2023 as it reorganizes its presence around a tighter unit centered on targeted strikes against jihadist leaders and on supporting local armies.
Maiga said the drawdown would mean France withdrawing its presence from several areas of the country.
"When areas are abandoned," we "look for alternatives," he said, referring to controversial negotiations with Russian paramilitary companies, as confirmed on Saturday by Russia's foreign minister.
"All this debate around Wagner (group) is rumors for now," he insisted.
He added that when an agreement is made with a state or any partner, "We will have no shame in making it public."
France has warned Mali that hiring the fighters from the Russian private-security firm would isolate the country internationally.