Islamist militants in Burkina Faso have kidnapped about 50 women who were searching for food in the Northern province of Soum, a hotbed of jihadist activity. The kidnapping took place around January 12th and 13th, the government said on Monday.
The mass kidnapping was the first since the spread of the insurgency to Burkina Faso from neighboring Mali in 2015 despite costly international military efforts to contain the menace.
It was the first time women are captured in such large number. Westerners and other locals were the insurgents main target before the 50 women were captured. Mass kidnappings have been carried out in Nigeria by the separatist group Boko Haram.
The women were kidnapped whilst on a food finding mission outside the village of Liki, about 15 km from Aribindi , a town in the same district of Soum.
“Searching has started with the aim of finding all these innocent victims safe and sound,” the government said in a statement.
Burkina Faso is one of several countries in West Africa battling a violent insurgency with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State that has seized large expanses of territory over the past decade.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 2.7 million displaced across the Sahel, where insecurity has affected agriculture and contributed to rising hunger levels, according to the United Nations.
Relatives told Reuters the missing women had started scouring the surrounding bush for food because there was no longer enough to feed their families in the village. They were looking for fruit, leaves and seeds which many are grounded into powder for children.
Insurgents have blockaded parts of the arid North in recent months, causing acute food shortages, and it has become increasingly dangerous to deliver supplies to trapped citizens.
Dozens of soldiers were killed in September when militants attacked a 150-vehicle convoy taking supplies to the Northern town of Djibo, the capital of Soum.
“Women can walk up to 4 km (into the bush) to look for food,” said one villager in Aribinda, who prefer anynomity for security reasons.
The villager added that the men were too scared to venture far from their homes for fear of being shot by jihadists. “That is why the women were kidnapped,” the villager said.
Frustrations over the failure of authorities to restore security and protect civilians were contributing factors to two military coups in Burkina Faso last year.
The US State Department said it was deeply concerned by the abduction of the women.
“Those abducted must be returned safely to their loved ones immediately and unconditionally, and those responsible should be held accountable to the full extent of the law,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.