Mali trial of I.Coast soldiers wraps up as deadline looms in row

Ivory Coast Mali.  By  (AFP)
Mali. By (AFP)

The trial in Mali of 46 Ivorian troops whose detention has sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries wrapped up on Friday, a judicial source and a defence lawyer said.

Their trial opened in the capital Bamako on Thursday in the run-up to a January 1 deadline set by West African leaders for Mali to release the soldiers or face sanctions.

"Friday's hearing is over. The court has retired to deliberate," the judicial source told AFP.

"We have finished making our arguments... We are awaiting the decision of the court," a lawyer for the Ivorian soldiers said.

The court proceedings were held behind closed doors and under heavy security, an AFP journalist noted.

Forty-nine troops from Ivory Coast were detained after they arrived at Bamako airport on July 10. Three of them, all women, were later freed.

Those remaining, branded by Mali's junta as "mercenaries", were charged the following month with seeking to undermine state security.

Ivory Coast and the United Nations say the troops were flown in to provide routine backup security for the German contingent of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The row escalated in September, when diplomatic sources in the region said Mali wanted Ivory Coast to acknowledge its responsibility and express regret for deploying the soldiers.

Bamako also wanted Ivory Coast to hand over people who had been on its territory since 2013 but who are wanted in Mali, they said.

Ivory Coast rejected both demands and was prepared for extended negotiations to free the men, the sources said.

An Ivorian delegation travelled to Mali last week for talks on the crisis, and the Ivorian defence ministry said it was "on the way to being resolved".

On December 4, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set New Year's Day as a deadline for the soldiers' release, failing which the bloc would impose new sanctions against Mali.