Tension between Mali and Côte d'Ivoire has flared up again after Bamako demanded that Malian politicians in exile in Côte d'Ivoire be handed over to Malian authorities. This in exchange for the release of Ivorian soldiers held in custody since July.
Côte d'Ivoire is struggling to understand the change in Mali's position following a communique from its interim President, Assimi Goïta, on Friday.
He said that the release of the Ivorian soldiers would depend on the extradition of Malian politicians who are facing international arrest warrants issued by the country.
The release, over a week ago, of three women soldiers from the Ivorian group was viewed as a sign that tension had eased, paving the way for a smooth exit of the crisis.
However, after Goïta's official communique, sources close to Côte d'Ivoire's President Alassane Ouattara told RFI's David Bache that “it's a hostage-taking situation and blackmail. They [Malian authorities] want to make Alassane Ouattara pay for the embargo enforced by ECOWAS and UEMOA (West African Monetary and Economic Union)”.
Sanctions were imposed between January and July this year so that Bamako would commit to holding general elections, putting an end to the military rule.
46 Ivorian soldiers have been detained in Mali's capital, Bamako, since 10 July on charges of alleged conspiracy and harm to state security.
The initial group of 49 soldiers flew to Bamako, reportedly, as reinforcement to MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. Three women in the group were released on 3 September according to Togo's Foreign Affairs minister, whose country is a mediator in this crisis.
Sources close to the mediation told RFI that Goita recently agreed not to demand the extradition of Malian politicians in exchange for the release of Ivorian soldiers but “he is not the only one who takes decisions”.
It appears that the Malian junta believes that Ouattara is siding with France, “which they are convinced, wants their downfall”.
Quid pro quo
Abidjan has firmly refused to hand over Malian politicians. They include, amongst others, Karim Keita, the son of Mali's former president and Boubou Cissé, the former Prime minister.
The Ivorian authorities will hold a national security council on this matter this week.
Abidjan possesses various means of pressure against Mali. There are three million Malians living in Côte d'Ivoire; there are economic interests including thousands of Malian trucks carrying goods from Abidjan or San Pedro and the country also supplies electricity to Mali.
The Malian junta would like to see President Ouattara use his influence over ECOWAS to facilitate funding for its projects.
Despite these renewed tensions, two weeks ago, 425 Ivorian soldiers were deployed in Timbuktu as part of the MINUSMA forces.