Security forces are searching for about 50 women kidnapped by suspected jihadists in insurgency-hit northern Burkina Faso, a regional governor said on Monday.
The women were kidnapped in separate incidents on Thursday and Friday as they foraged for food, in the latest attack on civilians by suspected Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked extremists.
UN human rights chief Volker Turk called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all the abducted women,” urging authorities to find and punish those responsible.
Landlocked Burkina Faso is one of the poorest and most volatile nations in the world.
Since 2015, it has been grappling with a jihadist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced around two million people.
“As soon as their disappearance was announced, efforts were launched to find all of these innocent victims safe and sound,” Sahel regional governor Lieutenant-Colonel Rodolphe Sorgho said in a statement.
“All means available are being used, in the air and on the ground, to find these women,” a security source told AFP.
“Aircraft are flying over the area to detect any suspect movement.”
Sorgho said the women were seized on Thursday and Friday around Arbinda, in an area under blockade by jihadist groups and dependent on food supplies from outside.
“While they were out looking for wild fruit, these wives, mothers and girls were wrongfully taken by armed men,” the governor said.
Several women managed to escape and return to their villages to raise the alarm.
Turk said in his statement that this “could be the first such attack deliberately targeting women in Burkina Faso.”
A senior Burkinabe military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the women’s disappearance was “the first really big kidnapping since the security crisis began.”
“Everything must be done to avoid a tragedy or a recurrence.”
France, Burkina’s ally and former colonial power, issued a statement condemning the abduction and calling for the women’s immediate release.
The jihadists have often targeted residents of Arbinda and surrounding areas.
The United States condemns the kidnapping of more than 50 women by violent extremists in Burkina Faso. These women must be returned to their loved ones immediately and unconditionally. https://t.co/CrzLAn5554
— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) January 17, 2023
In August 2021, 80 people, including 65 civilians were killed in an attack on a convoy taking them to Arbinda.
In many parts of Burkina, crops can no longer be cultivated because of the conflict.
In November 2022, Idrissa Badini, a civil society spokesman, raised the alarm about the situation in Arbinda, saying: “The population, which has used up its reserves, is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster.”
The United Nations says nearly one million people live in blockaded areas in Burkina’s north and east.
Disgruntled army officers have carried out two coups in Ouagadougou in the past year, in a show of anger at failures to roll back the insurgency.
The latest junta leader is 34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traore, who seized power on September 30.
He has made security the regime’s No. 1 priority, beefing up a volunteer militia and setting his sights on “reconquering territory occupied by the hordes of terrorists.”