Forty-six Ivorian soldiers detained in Mali since July arrived home late Saturday, according to an AFP reporter at the airport, a day after they were pardoned by the neighbouring country’s junta.
The troops, whose detention triggered a bitter diplomatic row between the countries, were arrested on July 10, 2022, after arriving in the Malian capital Bamako.
Mali accused them of being mercenaries, while Ivory Coast and the United Nations say they were flown in to provide routine backup security for the German contingent of the UN peacekeeping mission.
On Saturday, the 46 arrived at an airport in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan.
After their plane landed at 11:40 pm (2340 GMT), the uniformed soldiers disembarked one by one, each brandishing a small Ivorian flag.
They were greeted by President Alassane Ouattara before entering the presidential pavilion at the airport where their families were waiting for them.
Ouattara said he hoped the two countries could move on from the diplomatic spat.
“Now that this crisis is behind us, we can resume normal relations with the brother country of Mali, which needs us and which we also need,” he said in a speech at the airfield.
A spokesman for the soldiers thanked Ouattara, and “the Ivorian people for their support and active solidarity”.
“We are happy and relieved to return to the motherland,” he said.
On December 30, a Bamako court sentenced the soldiers to 20 years in prison, while three women among the original 49 arrested received death sentences in absentia.
They were convicted of an “attack and conspiracy against the government” and of seeking to undermine state security, public prosecutor Ladji Sara said at the time.
The sentence came in the run-up to a January 1 deadline set by leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for Mali to release the soldiers or face sanctions.
But on Friday, Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goita pardoned all 49.
An Ivorian delegation had travelled to Mali for talks before the trial opened, and the Ivorian defence ministry had said the dispute was “on the way to being resolved”.
An agreement reached between Mali and Ivory Coast at the time had left open the possibility of a presidential pardon.
The Malian government on Friday cited a memorandum of understanding the two countries had signed “on the promotion of peace and the strengthening of relations of friendship, brotherhood and good neighbourliness between the Republic of Mali and the Republic of Ivory Coast”.
It also thanked Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe, who mediated in the row, but denounced the “aggressive position” of ECOWAS leader Umaro Sissoco Embalo.
Relations between Mali and its West African neighbours were strained before the arrests, since elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was toppled in August 2020 by officers angered at failures to end a jihadist insurgency.
Ivorian President Ouattara is considered one of the most intransigent West African leaders towards Mali’s junta.
After the troops were detained, the UN acknowledged some procedural “dysfunctions” in a note addressed to the Malian government, saying that “certain measures have not been followed”.
The Ivorian presidency also admitted “shortcomings and misunderstandings”.
But the row escalated in September, when diplomatic sources in the region said Mali wanted Ivory Coast to acknowledge its responsibility and express regret for deploying the soldiers.
Bamako also wanted Ivory Coast to hand over people who had been on its territory since 2013 but who are wanted in Mali, they said.
Ivory Coast rejected both demands and was prepared for extended negotiations to free the troops, the sources said.
“This hostage-taking will not be without consequences,” Ouattara said at the time.
The tensions led Mali’s interim prime minister at the time, Abdoulaye Maiga, to denounce a “synchronisation of actions” against Mali at the UN General Assembly in September.
He attacked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for having declared that the Ivorian soldiers were not mercenaries.
He also criticised ECOWAS chief Embalo, as well as the heads of state of Ivory Coast and Niger.