Mali’s ruling junta has heightened its diplomatic and verbal joust with Ivory Coast over 46 detained Ivorian soldiers, warning other West African states to stay out of the spat. In a statement read on state television on Thursday evening, interim Prime Minister Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga told the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — to which Ivory Coast has turned for help — that the case “is purely judicial and bilateral.” He cautioned against “any instrumentalisation of ECOWAS by the Ivorian authorities to avoid their responsibility” and said Mali would only accept the existing mediation agreement, brokered by Togo. The Ivorian government “wanted conflict” and had “transformed a judicial case into a diplomatic crisis,” he charged. Relations between the two neighbours began to deteriorate after the military seized power in Mali in August 2020. They worsened in July when 49 Ivorian soldiers were arrested after flying in to Bamako airport. Three of them, all women, have since been released. Ivory Coast says the troops were sent to provide backup for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, and are being unfairly detained. Mali however says the troops are mercenaries and has placed them in custody on charges of attempting to harm state security. Tensions rose last week when junta chief Colonel Assimi Goita implied their release could hinge on the extradition of several Malians living in Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast on Wednesday lashed the perceived condition as “blackmail” and requested an urgent ECOWAS summit. Both Ivory Coast and Mali are ECOWAS members but Mali is currently suspended from its decision making bodies because of the military takeover. The Malian authorities noted the Ivorian reaction “with great concern and deep amazement,” Maiga said. “These foreign forces, including 30 or so special forces, arrived in Mali in possession of weapons and munitions of war, without any mission order or authorisation, while concealing their real identities and professions as soldiers, as well as the precise purpose of their presence on Malian soil”, Maiga said. Mali has previously accused Ivory Coast of insisting ECOWAS take a hard line on sanctions aimed at forcing the junta to commit to an earlier deadline for surrendering power. Tough trade and financial sanctions were lifted in July after Mali, yielding to the bloc’s demands, published a new electoral law and a timetable that includes a presidential election in February 2024.