The arrest of Ivorian soldiers in the Malian capital in July sparked a diplomatic row between the two West African neighbors.
Three women out of 49 Côte d’Ivoire soldiers held in Mali have been released.
The women returned home late on Saturday, about seven weeks after their arrest that sparked a diplomatic row between Mali and Ivory Coast.
Mali said the group – who was detained at the airport in the Malian capital Bamako on July 10 – had flown without permission and were seen as mercenaries.
Ivory Coast, which has repeatedly requested their release, says the soldiers were unjustly detained after being sent to provide support to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA. They say their role in the mission was “well known to the financial authorities”.
Togo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Robert Doss, whose country is mediating the talks, told reporters on Saturday that the three women were “released as a humanitarian gesture” by Malian leader Colonel Asimi Gueta.
“I would like to announce that the head of the transition, Malian President Asami Gueta, has agreed … to move forward with the release of some prisoners,” Doss said.
“Discussions are underway to ensure that other soldiers in custody can very quickly regain their complete freedom,” he added.
Doss was speaking in the Togolese capital, Lomé, alongside Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and Ivory Coast government director Fidel Sarasoreau.
Sarasuro said at the press conference that Ivory Coast “regrets the fact that shortcomings and misunderstandings were behind this very unfortunate event.”
He added that his country “is keen to maintain good-neighborly relations with Mali, and pledges to respect the procedures of the United Nations as well as the new financial rules and provisions that have been enacted regarding the deployment of military forces in Mali.”
A statement by Mali’s public prosecutor, Samba Sissoko, on Saturday said that the judge in charge of the case had agreed to a request to release the three soldiers and drop the charges against them.
Sita Bamba, one of the released soldiers, called for the release of her fellow troops.
“We are sad that our friends are still there and hopefully we can get them back very soon,” she said after returning home.
The arrest of the Ivorian soldiers was the latest sign of tension between the Malian leader and the international community. Gueta faced increasing isolation after seizing power in a coup two years ago and then failing to meet an international deadline to organize new democratic elections.
A day after the troops’ arrest, MINUSMA’s spokesman, Olivier Salgado, supported Ivory Coast’s position, but the peacekeeping mission later admitted there was a “malfunction” in the Ivorian troop deployment.
The Malian army expelled Salgado from the country for spreading “unacceptable information” about the case.
It also suspended rotations of UN peacekeepers, although they have since resumed.
MINUSMA is one of the forces in Sahel state to help it fight rebels linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, who began operations in 2012 and spread their influence in northern and central Mali.
In June, Malian authorities said they would not authorize the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to investigate human rights abuses in Mali, including the killing of more than 300 civilians earlier this year.
Human rights groups accused the Malian army of carrying out the killings.