Mali Releases 3 Ivorian Soldiers; 46 Others Still Detained

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Three female Ivorian soldiers arrived home late Saturday after being detained for nearly two months in Mali, while 46 others remain jailed in a case that has heightened tensions between the West African neighbors.

Togolese Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Dusse, whose country has been mediating talks, said the three women were “released as a humanitarian gesture" by Mali's leader, Col. Assimi Goita.

"We are sad because our friends are still there and we hope to be able to retrieve them very soon,” said one of the soldiers, Sita Bamba, who was released along with Awa Bakayoko and Kangah Badou Adele Bledou.

The Ivorian soldiers were sent to Mali in July to work for Sahelian Aviation Services, a private company contracted by the United Nations.

However, Mali’s government said it considered the Ivorians to be mercenaries because they were not directly employed by the U.N. mission and charged them with undermining state security. Malian authorities said the aviation company should “henceforth entrust its security to the Malian defense and security forces.”

In a statement, Malian Prosecutor Samba Sissoko gave no update about the 46 Ivorians who are still detained, other than to say that “investigations are ongoing.” The Togolese foreign affairs minister indicated discussions about the remaining detainees continue.

The detention of the Ivorian soldiers marked the latest sign of tension between Mali's leader and the international community. Goita has faced growing isolation after he seized power in a coup two years ago and then failed to meet an international deadline for organizing new democratic elections.

In June, Malian authorities said they would not authorize the U.N. mission to investigate human rights violations in Mali, including the deaths of more than 300 civilians earlier this year. Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of carrying out the killings.

France, the one-time colonial power that had fought Islamic extremism for nine years in Mali, completed its troop withdrawal from the country last month.

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Ahmed reported from Bamako, Mali. Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.