Three women among the 49 Ivorian soldiers detained in Mali have been released.
The women arrived home late on Saturday about seven weeks after their arrests sparked a diplomatic spat between military-ruled Mali and the Ivory Coast.
Mali said the group – who were detained at the airport in the Malian capital, Bamako, on July 10 – had flown in without permission and were considered mercenaries.
Ivory Coast, which has repeatedly requested their release, says the soldiers were unfairly arrested after being sent to provide backup for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA. They say their role within the mission was “well-known to the Malian authorities”.
Togolese foreign minister Robert Dusse, whose country has been mediating talks, told reporters on Saturday that the three women were “released as a humanitarian gesture” by Mali’s leader, Colonel Assimi Goita.
“I would like to announce that the president of the transition, President Assimi Goita of Mali, has agreed… to proceed with the release of some prisoners,” Dusse said.
“Discussions are under way to ensure that the other soldiers in detention can very quickly regain their full freedom”, he added.
Dusse was speaking in the Togolese capital, Lome, alongside Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, and Ivory Coast’s cabinet director, Fidele Sarassoro.
Ivory Coast “deplores the fact that shortcomings and misunderstandings were at the origin of this highly regrettable event”, Sarassoro said at the news conference.
His country, “anxious to maintain good neighbourly relations with Mali, undertakes to respect the procedures of the United Nations as well as the new Malian rules and provisions enacted concerning the deployment of military forces in Mali”, he added.
A statement from Mali’s public prosecutor Samba Sissoko on Saturday said the magistrate in charge of the case had approved a request for the release of the three soldiers and the dropping of charges against them.
One of the soldiers who was released, Sita Bamba, called for freedom for her fellow troops.
“We are sad because our friends are still there and we hope to be able to retrieve them very soon,” she said following her return home.
The detention of the Ivorian soldiers marked the latest sign of tension between Mali’s leader and the international community. Goita has faced growing isolation after he seized power in a coup two years ago and then failed to meet an international deadline for organising new democratic elections.
A day after the detention of the troops, MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado backed Ivory Coast’s position, but the peacekeeping mission later acknowledged there had been “dysfunctions” in deploying the Ivorian troops.
Mali’s military expelled Salgado from the country for having published “unacceptable information” on the affair.
It also suspended rotations of UN peacekeeping troops, although they have since resumed.
MINUSMA is one of the forces in the Sahel state to help it fight rebels linked with al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group, which began their operations in 2012 and have spread their influence across northern and central Mali.
In June, Malian authorities said they would not authorise MINUSMA to investigate human rights violations in Mali, including the deaths of more than 300 civilians earlier this year.
Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of carrying out the killings.