Mali on Monday declared that 49 troops from the Ivory Coast were “mercenaries” after earlier detaining the soldiers on arrival in the country, the Malian government said.
“It has been established that the 49 Ivorian soldiers were illegally on the national territory of Mali,” government spokesman Abdoulaye Maiga said in a statement read on state TV, calling the men “mercenaries”.
“The transitional government has decided to refer this case to the relevant judicial authorities.”
Maiga added that the soldiers were armed, carried ammunition and had no mission order or authorisation, saying they had the “dark aim” of stopping the protection and reform of Mali and its return to a constitutional order.
An Ivorian diplomat previously said some of the soldiers had been sent to join the UN’s peacekeeping mission MINUSMA.
The force said it believed they were part of a unit that provided routine logistical support to the Ivorian military contingent of MINUSMA.
MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado said the transfer of the troops would have been notified to the Malian authorities in advance.
An Ivorian diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity that some of the soldiers came to work for German company Sahelian Aviation Service (SAS) on MINUSMA’s behalf.
But the Malian government said its foreign ministry had not been informed via official channels, highlighting a “flagrant violation” of its penal code relating to territorial integrity.
It added that the Ivorian soldiers provided four different reasons justifying their presence in the country, including carrying out a “confidential mission” and the protection of Germany’s MINUSMA contingent.
The government said it had decided to end immediately the involvement of foreign forces in SAS’s protection.
As of Monday evening, Ivorian authorities had provided no official reaction.
The Ivorians who arrived in Mali on Sunday are being held at a gendarmerie school in the capital Bamako while the checks were carried out, a gendarme said.
News of the arrest spread quickly on social media, with some accusing the troops of arriving to carry out a coup.
The incident takes place against a backdrop of tensions in Mali, one of the poorest and most unstable countries in Africa.
Colonels angry at the government’s handling of a long-running jihadist insurgency seized power in August 2020 and carried out another coup in May the following year.
The military junta has adopted a timetable allowing a return to civilian rule in 2024.