46 Ivorian soldiers sentenced to 20 years in Mali prison
TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — Forty-six soldiers from Ivory Coast were sentenced to 20 years in prison for undermining state security in Mali and for attacks on Mali’s government, the African nation’s prosecutor general said Friday.
The soldiers were also fined more than $3,000 and convicted of carrying and transporting weapons, Prosecutor General Ladji Sara said in a statement.
Sara added that three other defendants, all women who were released in September, were tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
The 49 soldiers were detained in July when they went to work for Sahelian Aviation Services, a private company contracted to work in Mali by the United Nations.
Mali’s government said it considered the Ivorians to be mercenaries because they were not directly employed by the U.N. mission and accused them of undermining state security. Malian authorities said the aviation company should entrust its security to Mali’s defense forces.
The conviction of the soldiers comes days ahead of the Jan. 1 deadline set by West African leaders for Mali to release the soldiers. Ivory Coast’s defense minister visited Mali’s capital, Bamako, earlier this month to appeal for their release.
Mali has little to gain from antagonizing a key neighbor, said Alexander Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “The junta is compounding its isolation and adding to the likelihood that (the UN peacekeeping mission) will collapse,” he said.
The case has added to escalating tensions between Mali’s military junta and the international community. The junta’s leader, Col. Assimi Goita, has faced growing isolation since he seized power in a coup two years ago and then failed to meet an international deadline for organizing democratic elections.
Goita has also allowed Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to help fight jihadis linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. The Russians came into Mali as French and other regional forces left.
Amid growing tensions with the junta, France withdrew its troops after nine years of operations in Mali against jihadi forces.
In June, Malian authorities said they would not authorize the U.N. mission to investigate possible human rights violations in Mali, including the deaths of more than 300 civilians earlier this year.
Associated Press writer Toussaint N’Gotta in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.
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