Thousands take to the streets of Bamako in anti-French protest

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By Paul Lorgerie

Bamako (Reuters) - Thousands of anti-French protesters took to the streets of Mali's capital on Friday waving Russian flags and burning cardboard cut-outs of French President Emmanuel Macron in celebration of the expulsion of France's envoy in Bamako.

Mali expelled the French ambassador last week over what the country's transitional government described as "hostile and outrageous" comments by the former colonial power.

Relations between Mali and its former coloniser have turned acrimonious after the junta, which seized power in August 2020, reneged on a promise to organise elections in February and proposed holding power until 2025.

The failure to hold elections has led to punishing economic and financial sanctions backed by France and other European Union (EU) countries.

The EU on Friday imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on five individuals including Mali's transitional prime minister Choguel Maiga and members of interim president Assimi Goita's inner circle. [L8N2UF51B]

Around 3,000 people gathered in central Bamako Friday afternoon, according to a Reuters witness.

Adama Ben Diarra, known as Camarade Ben Le Cerveau, a vocal nationalist pro-Russian activist who the EU accused of helping to overthrow the government in August 2020, was one of those sanctioned by the EU.

He movement organised Friday protest before the EU sanctions were announced. Diarra told the cheering crowed that it was an honour to be on EU's sanctions list.

He said the expulsion of France's ambassador was an important step. The next step must be the departure of over 5,100 counter-terrorism troops deployed in Mali to help fight insurgents linked to the Islamic State and al Qaeda, he added.

Addressing the deployment of Russian mercenaries to Mali, another issue that has soured between Mali and France and other Western partners fighting militants in the Sahel, Diarra said: "For the security of my people, I am ready to make a pact with Satan to drive out France and its terrorist allies."

(Reporting by Paul Lorgerie; Writing by Cooper Inveen and Bate Felix; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)