Ivory Coast had said the 49 soldiers were in Mali to provide security for a United Nations peacekeeping mission, but Mali had accused them of being mercenaries.
The military junta that controls Mali pardoned 49 Ivorian soldiers and suspended their prison sentences, ending a diplomatic dispute that highlighted the growing isolation of the West African country and its strained relations with its neighbors.
The decision, announced late on Friday, came a week after the soldiers, who had been detained nearly six months ago, had received sentences of 20 years. Mali had accused the soldiers of being mercenaries, but the government of Ivory Coast said they were in Mali to support a nearly decade-old United Nations peacekeeping mission of 15,000 members assigned to protect civilians from armed groups.
Months of negotiations and a mediation led by the president of Togo ensued, but on Dec. 30, a court in Bamako, Mali’s capital, convicted 46 soldiers of crimes including conspiracy against the government after a closed trial that lasted a day and a half. Three female soldiers, who had been arrested and later released, were sentenced to death in absentia because they did not appear in court for their hearing.
On Friday, however, Mali’s military leader, Col. Assimi Goïta, revoked the sentences of all soldiers, Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, the government spokesman, said in a statement read on national television.
“This gesture demonstrates once again the attachment to peace, dialogue and pan-Africanism,” the statement said about Colonel Goïta’s move, a claim that is at odds with Mali’s recent attitude toward its neighbors and international partners.
Inside Bamako, much of the population believes that the Ivorian soldiers were mercenaries, Doussouba Konaté, a civil society leader in Mali, told The New York Times in December. But abroad most diplomats and analysts repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the detention.
After the soldiers were arrested, the United Nations acknowledged procedural “dysfunctions” in a note to the Malian government and admitted that “certain measures have not been followed.” But the Ivorian authorities denied that the soldiers had been sent to disturb public order, and denounced their detention as hostage-taking.
Mali’s relations with some West African neighbors and internationals partners have soured since a military junta seized power in Mali in a coup in 2020 and overthrew civilian leaders in a second one, in 2021. In August, French troops left Mali after a nearly decade-long military intervention intended to restore order in the country, which has been battling a terrorist threat in an increasingly unstable region.
In November, Britain said it was withdrawing its contingent involved with the U.N. peacekeeping operation, known as MINUSMA, citing concerns over Mali’s partnership with the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group. Benin, Germany and Sweden have also said they will leave.
Mercenaries affiliated with the Wagner Group have been accused of widespread killings and human rights abuses in Mali, particularly against civilians. Mali, where Wagner mercenaries have been operating alongside the country’s military, according to Western officials, has denied any partnership with the group and has dismissed accusations of human rights violations.