ABIDJAN – Forty six Ivorian soldiers returned home to cheers and celebrations after being detained for six months in Mali.
Waving flags, the beaming soldiers saluted Ivorian officials as they descended the military plane in the capital, Abidjan, on Saturday evening.
Forty nine 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 considered them to be mercenaries and detained them.
The soldiers were pardoned last week after 46 of them were sentenced to 20 years in prison for undermining state security in Mali and for attacks on Mali’s government. Three other defendants, all women who had been released in September, were tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
Speaking to the soldiers at a packed ceremony after they landed, Ivory Coast's president, Alassane Ouattara, said they shouldn't blame themselves for what happened.
"The mission was not easy but you are back exactly six months after your departure from the Ivory Coast,” Ouattara said.
Shaking hands and taking photos with the president, the soldiers were embraced by emotional friends and family.
“I am very happy to return to my native land. It was our wish," said Sergeant Youssouf Dah one of the soldiers who returned. “Today his excellency the president of the republic (and) supreme commander of the armed forces has made an effort so that we can find our families,” he said.
Mali's government said the decision to pardon the soldiers demonstrates the military junta's commitment to peace and dialogue and to maintaining good relations with Ivory Coast.
Mali has been embroiled in jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group for a decade. The release of the Ivorian soldiers is meant to both send a good faith signal to Ivory Coast and show that the junta is in full control, while distracting the public from the security crisis engulfing the nation, analysts say.