BANJUL (Reuters) -Separatist rebels on Monday released seven Senegalese soldiers they captured last month, following negotiations involving the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
The soldiers, part of a West African force in neighbouring Gambia, were taken captive by rebels from the Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance (MFDC) during a clash that also killed at least two Senegalese troops and one rebel fighter.
Senegal said they were captured in Gambia, while the MFDC accused them of crossing over into Senegal’s southern region of Casamance to attack them.
The MFDC was formed in 1982 to fight for independence for Casamance. It has been largely dormant since a 2014 ceasefire but has been blamed for sporadic attacks since then and finances itself through timber trafficking between Senegal and Gambia.
The MFDC handed the soldiers over in a deal also signed by a representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Gambian military and the Catholic Sant’Egidio charity.
At the signing ceremony, MFDC representative Pape Sané warned Senegalese soldiers in Gambia to stay out of Casamance.
“The strangers that the Gambia is hosting should stay within Gambia,” he said.
In a statement, Senegal’s military confirmed the soldiers’ release, saying they appeared to be in good health. It denied the MFDC’s claims that the soldiers were seized inside Senegal.
Senegalese troops were deployed to Gambia, which is bordered on three sides by Senegal, in 2017 to enforce President Adama Barrow’s election victory over then-President Yahya Jammeh.
(Reporting by Pap Saine; Writing by Aaron Ross; editing by Mark Heinrich)