A court in Mali has sentenced 46 Ivorian troops whose detention in Mali sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries to 20 years in prison, the public prosecutor said Friday.
Three female soldiers among the original group detained in July, and who were freed in early September, were sentenced to death in absentia.
The trial of the 46 Ivorian troops wrapped up on Friday after opening in the capital Bamako on Thursday.
The court proceedings came in the run-up to a Jan. 1 deadline set by West African leaders for Mali to release the soldiers or face sanctions.
The Ivorians were found guilty of an “attack and conspiracy against the government” and seeking to undermine state security, public prosecutor Ladji Sara said in a statement.
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 U.N. 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 traveled to Mali last week for talks on the crisis, and the Ivorian Defense Ministry said it was “on the way to being resolved.”
An agreement reached last week between Mali and Ivory Coast leaves the possibility open of a presidential pardon by Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goita, who is due to make a national address on Saturday.
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.