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 troop, 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 (23:40 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.
Très heureux de retrouver nos 46 soldats. Nous sommes fiers de la discipline, de la patience et du courage dont ils ont fait preuve durant ces mois de détention.
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 AssimiGoita 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”. –AFP