By Mustapha Jallow
The Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) separatist movement has finally released seven (7) captured ECOMIG soldiers on Monday, February 14, 2022, following lengthy negotiations.
A delegation comprising the lead-negotiator, Father Angelo Tioman of Community Sant’Egidio in Italy, Ecowas and Gambian officials, a Red Cross International official and heads of the security agencies with escorts of combined forces such as the army and police who were heavily armed during their mission to receive captive detainees.
At 9 am, the delegates arrived at the site where the MFDC rebels held their first press briefing with reporters. At 10 am, the movement representatives, Pape Sané, MFDC Operations Commander with his armed men, also arrived to meet the meditators. The place was heavily guarded by Gambian army and MFDC members.
The soldiers, imprisoned for 22 days in the jungle camps, were released at Baipal—an isolated village in the rebel-held territory. The formal release documents were signed by the lead negotiator, a representative from the Ecowas mission in The Gambia and a Gambian military official.
The lead negotiator, Ecowas representative, and Gambian officials hailed the freeing of the soldiers and described it as a humanitarian gesture. The released soldiers were: Sergeant Abou Bâ, Sergeant Fulgence Antoine Manga, Chief Corporal Niane Diatta, Chief Corporal Pape Souaka Diouf, private Gana Sène, private Omar Thioye, private Atap Diémé and private Jacob Vincent Mendy.
MFDC top commander, Pape Sané, spoke on behalf of the separatist movement leader Salif Sadio who could not be available for the meeting. Sané told the delegates that he was assigned to give a word to the Gambian leader, President Adama Barrow.
“We all know the reasons why we are here. So, we are praying for God to forbid us for such session again,” he told the officials. “We captured 7 soldiers and killed 2. We’ve given the 2 dead bodies to Claude Kondor ( Ecowas political adviser) to take them to their people. For the 7 captives, Salif Sadio told me that I should hand them over to Kondor to take them their relatives.”
According to Sané, they cannot handover the detainees without the presence of Gambian authorities because ECOMIG are hosted by The Gambia. He said his leader told him to inform the delegates that Gambia/ Senegal are related and the fight in Casamance is not one of terrorism or criminal activities. Instead, he said, they are fighting for freedom; and they didn’t ask any help from The Gambia. But he said they still see Gambia and Casamance as relatives.
“So, we want the relationship between Gambia and us to be maintained because we all have relatives in Gambia or Casamance,” Sané explained.
According to him, since the regime of President Dawda K. Jawara to Yahya Jammeh, Casamance and Gambia had never witnessed a problem. Thus, he urged President Barrow to follow the footsteps of his predecessors.
“We do not hate President Barrow because he’s our brother and younger brother,” he told delegates. “If we can’t help Gambia, we will not destroy them.”
Sané indicated that ECOMIG soldiers should remain in The Gambia, saying they (rebels) are fighting inside Casamance with Senegal. He added that they are also on peace talks with Senegalese authorities in Italy.
“This is why when the shootout occurred, the Italian lead mediator came and we held peace talks with him and other senior delegates,” he explained.
The separatist commander said the MFDC movement has expressed satisfaction with Colonel Musa Trawally and the delegates for coming to establish the truth at fighting area, saying they are happy with the smooth action. In Casamance, Sané continued that they are still fighting heavily with Senegal and they would not stop fighting unless and until Senegal leaves the territory of Casamance.
“The ECOMIG in Gambia should know what type of mission is given to them and limit themselves to their mandate,” he said.
The MFDC senior official further urged the ECOWAS—whose mission in Gambia is to ensure peace prevails— not to engage themselves into unnecessary fight.
“We are releasing the captured soldiers on humanitarian grounds. We do not need money, a pen and nothing absolutely,” he said. “We are just going to handover your soldiers for you (ECOWAS) to hand them over to their family members.”
According to him, names of all captured soldiers have been written, and before they were released, the Sant’Egidio Italian lead meditator, ECOWAS mission representation in The Gambia and Gambia’s military official all signed formal documents for the release of the said soldiers.
The documents were later signed by Colonel Musa Trawally from the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF); Father Angelo Tioman, the lead negotiator and Ecowas Claude Kondor. The soldiers themselves and Ecowas representative Kondor signed formal documents for the release of their belongings: phones, money and watches.
The MFDC operations commander said for the watches, they saw Senegalese military was written inside them. Three (3) watches, 7 helmets and 3 body-armours (bulletproof) were seized.
“I do appreciate the declaration that has been made by MFDC representatives. I think the choice today for the released members of the ECOMIG mission is very good choice that we all appreciated,” said the lead negotiator, Father Angelo.
He impressed with the collaboration between the Gambian authorities and Ecowas to ensure that the soldiers are released in a peaceful way.
“As a mediator, I agreed that the good part to solve the problem of Casamance through negotiation is to find peace resolution to the conflict between Senegalese authorities and MFDC,” he said.
Mr Claude Kondor, a Political Adviser of Ecowas Mission in The Gambia, said the first day they came to receive their corpses (killed soldiers), MFDC leader told him that after releasing the bodies they can come back and take their captured soldiers as well. He said Salif Sadio told them that they do not need anything when handing over the captives.
“This meeting is very good for us and is really a historic moment in our search for security and sustainable development in West Africa,” he said.
Kondor described this act as a fantastic humanitarian gesture and on behalf of Ecowas, he thanked MFDC for the kind humanitarian consideration, which is inline with international law and human rights.
Colonel Musa Trawally from GAF’s Defense Headquarters in Banjul said after incident, the Gambian government set-up a task force to investigate what went wrong and how it happened.
“Along with some consultations with relevant stakeholders was the MFDC group that later led to the handing over of the dead bodies,” said Trawally, who was among the Gambia’s delegates.
He added that the peace engagement also intensified, even though it was not easy. Through the MFDC help, he said, they were able to witness the historic moment of freeing 7 captives.
“The message that was sent by the MFDC leader was well received. We will extend the message to the Gambian government and I believe Ecowas also will extend theirs to the Ecowas level,” Trawally said. “The Gambia stands neutral in this ongoing crisis and always remains neutral. We also want to make it clear that we will not allow anybody to use our soil to against another person.”
Meanwhile, the released soldiers boarded two Ambulances heavily escorted by the Gambian border patrol troops. Before their departure, the delegates were heard saying that the freed soldiers will be taken to Ecowas base in The Gambia and later taken to the authorities in Senegal.
The MFDC operations commander was also seen handing over what he called ‘a confidential file’ to the Ecowas Mission political advisor Claude Kondor to give it to the Ecowas leaders. The signed documents of the released soldiers were also given to each of the individuals who signed them as mentioned above.
Baipal village in Casamance, where the handing over took place, is 4 kilometers away from Bagajarr village in The Gambia. Baipal village looked deserted due to heavy fighting. The village is now under the control of MFDC.
It could be recalled that the MFDC held captive ECOMIG soldiers since 24th January, but the movement leader pledged to release them after talks were held between him and ECOWAS officials.
Two officers among 7 captured soldiesr were paraded before the press on February 5, 2022, and 2 ECOMIG soldiers were killed during the January 24, shootout. Two (2) others were later announced death by Senegalese army in a statement.
The issue of seized weapons, watches, helmets and body-armours were challenged by one of the delegates, but the MFDC representatives maintained their position that the issue of the items be discussed further as they are also reviewing the matter.
This means further talks will be held by the Ecowas and rebel movement.