Mali’s transition authorities on Monday said they were holding 49 Ivorian soldiers on suspicion of seeking to destabilise the country.
The soldiers were detained on Sunday, shortly after arriving at the Modibo Keita International Airport in Bamako, aboard a special flight.
While Ivorian authorities say the soldiers are part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country – Minusma, the Malians insist there has been no evidence to support that claim. Rather, they say all evidence point to an ulterior motive.
Reports about the detention of the troops first emerged on social media. Many Malians view Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara as the stooge of Western governments, especially France, which has been at loggerheads with the Malian junta since the overthrow of the late former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.
Ouattara and France are believed to be behind sanctions imposed on Mali by the West African bloc, Ecowas in January, which were lifted just last week.
In a statement issued via state TV on Monday evening, Mali’s military-led transition government spokesman, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, described the soldiers as "mercenaries", noting that they were in the country "illegally” and in possession of weapons and ammunition of war, without a mission order or authorisation.
“Thanks to the professionalism of the Malian Defence and Security Forces, it was established that the forty-nine (49) Ivorian soldiers were illegally on the national territory of Mali. As a result, they were immediately arrested and their weapons, ammunition and equipment were seized,” the statement reads.
Reports have cited the Ivorian army insisting that the soldiers belonged to the regular army and that they were in Mali to secure Minusma sites. The Ivorians also denied that there was any problem with the prior arrangement for the troop’s arrival in Bamako.
Reports cited Ivorian army sources saying that the detained soldiers belonged to the 8th detachment of the National Support Element (NSE), which is an autonomous body of national troop-contributing countries deployed in support of their contingents, a practice commonly applied in peacekeeping missions.
Cote d’Ivoire has two separate contingents in Minusma based in Mopti in the centre of the country and Timbuktu in the north.
Another report said the detained troops are seconded to a private company, Sahel Aviation Service (SAS), a German-led airline operating entity which is a subcontractor of the UN mission.
But the Malian transition authorities said preliminary investigation revealed several things that point to other motives. For instance, they said the actual profession of individual soldiers were concealed, noting that the passports of many of them indicate that they were students, drivers, masons, mechanics, saleswomen and electricians, among others. About 30 of the detained soldiers were discovered to be special forces, according to the statement.
It adds that the soldiers gave four different versions of explanation for their purpose in the country, noting that when the Malian defence and security officials contacted their Ivorian counterparts, they had no idea about the presence of their soldiers in the contingent.
Meanwhile, the Mali government said it has terminated with immediate effect the licences of the SAS and demanded their immediate departure from its territory.
The incident is the latest in a string of events that have strained the relations between the Malian authorities and UN and other foreign forces in the country.
A similar situation occurred in January when a contingent of Danish troops was forced to leave the country shortly after they’d arrived. The Malians said they didn’t follow the right procedure.
Over 17, 000 men and women under the UN are serving in Mali with the task of stabilising the country and supporting its political transition process. The troops, first deployed in 2013, include civilians, contingent troops, police and UN volunteers.
Mali has been described as the most dangerous UN peace mission presently, with reports of frequent attacks against its forces.
Just last Tuesday, a convoy of the mission came under a fatal attack, claiming the lives of two Egyptian soldiers and injuring nine others.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned that incident which occurred on the Tessalit-Gao axis in the northern part of the country.
UN data show that 275 fatalities have been recorded among troops deployed in the country since 2013, making it the deadliest in the world for the UN.
The mission’s mandate was extended for a further one year only on June 29 by the UN Security Council.