Negotiations remain the preferred option to obtain the release of 49 Ivorian soldiers detained for a month in Bamako and accused by the military in power in Mali of being "mercenaries", which Abidjan denies, claiming that they were on a mission for the UN.
This case illustrates the tensions between Mali and Côte d'Ivoire, accused by Bamako of having incited its West African partners to tighten sanctions against the Malian military perpetrators of two coups since 2020, sanctions were finally lifted in early July.
A mediation by Togo has so far been unsuccessful, but discussions are continuing with a view to releasing the detained soldiers as quickly as possible. On 10 July, 49 Ivorian soldiers in military uniform, but unarmed, disembarked in Bamako from a plane of the national airline Air Côte d'Ivoire, another plane carrying their weapons.
They were immediately arrested and questioned about their presence in Mali, as they had "neither a mission order nor authorisation" to be there, according to the Malian authorities. The next day, they were accused of being "mercenaries" who had come to Mali with the "fateful intention" of "breaking the momentum of the rebuilding and securing of Mali, as well as the return to constitutional order".
The Ivorian National Security Council (CNS), chaired by the head of state, Alassane Ouattara, immediately demanded their release "without delay", claiming that they had been "unjustly" arrested. Their presence in the framework of logistical support operations for the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is "well known to the Malian authorities", according to the CNS.
The UN confirms, but acknowledges "dysfunctions", as to the exact mission of these soldiers who are part of the National Support Elements (NSE), a UN procedure allowing contingents of peacekeeping missions to call on external providers for logistical support.
MINUSMA "notes that the Ivorian elements were deployed to Sénou (Bamako) to provide security at the German NSE base there, instead of Timbuktu (north) where the Ivorian contingent of MINUSMA is based" and admits that "certain measures were not followed".
In the wake of the arrest of the Ivorian soldiers, Mali is hardening its tone against MINUSMA, which has been present on its territory since 2013 to help it fight the jihadist groups that destabilise it through violence.
The rotations of the UN military and police contingents were suspended, its spokesman, Olivier Salgado, expelled, and orders were given to "foreign forces" to leave a base at Bamako airport.
At the same time, the Malian junta called for mediation by Togo in order to reach "a happy ending" - the release of the Ivorian soldiers - an initiative accepted by the Ivorian government. Initial negotiations took place on 28 July in Lomé, without result.
Mali demanded that Côte d'Ivoire acknowledge its responsibility and express "regret" for the deployment of soldiers on its territory without a legal framework, according to diplomatic sources close to the negotiations.
Bamako also asked Abidjan to hand over Malian personalities present in Côte d'Ivoire and wanted by the Malian justice system, according to these sources. All these conditions were rejected by the Ivorian government.
But "we are continuing discussions with the two brotherly countries, resolutely turned towards a peaceful settlement of the case," according to a Togolese source close to the case.
The president of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Chérif Madani Haïdara, and the archbishop of Bamako, Jean Zerbo, have also intervened with the junta for an amicable settlement, as well as the influential religious leader of Nioro (south-west Mali), Chérif Bouyé Haïdara, according to their entourages.
As evidence of Mali's apparent willingness to favour a negotiated solution, for the time being, the legal proceedings initiated in Bamako against the Ivorian soldiers have so far not led to any charges being brought.
"Côte d'Ivoire has favoured dialogue" to obtain the release of its soldiers and "discussions are underway", confirmed the Ivorian government spokesman, Amadou Coulibaly. "Everything is being done so that our soldiers can be reunited with their families," he said, acknowledging that "it may take a long time".
At its last meeting on Thursday, the Ivorian NSC deplored that the Malian authorities "continue to detain these soldiers, in an arbitrary manner, despite all the explanations and evidence provided by the Ivorian authorities, to prove the legal and regular nature of their mission.
It notes, however, that "after several refusals by the Malian authorities, the chargé d'affaires and the military attaché of the Ivory Coast embassy in Mali were finally able to meet with the 49 soldiers" who "are in high spirits".