Islamist militants kidnapped around 50 women in Burkina Faso
The mass kidnapping is the first in the insurgency that spread to Burkina Faso from neighboring Mali in 2015 despite expensive international military efforts to quell it.
While Westerners and locals are sometimes caught, women have not been kidnapped before in such numbers. Mass kidnappings have been carried out in Nigeria by the breakaway Boko Haram insurgency there.
Armed men caught the women as they were gathering wild fruits outside the village of Liki, about 15 km (10 miles) from the town of Aribinda, and then at another place in the same district.
“The search began with the aim of finding all these innocent victims safely,” 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 the Islamic State that have seized large swaths 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 that the missing women had started digging the surrounding bush for food because there was not enough left to feed their families in the village. They were looking for fruits, leaves and seeds that are ground into powder for children.
In recent months the rebels have blockaded parts of the arid north, 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 convoy of 150 vehicles 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 did not wish to be named due to security concerns.
The villager added that the men were too afraid to venture far from their homes for fear of being shot by the jihadists. “That’s why the women were kidnapped,” said the villager.
Frustrations over the authorities’ failure to restore security and protect civilians were contributing to two military coups in Burkina Faso last year.
(Reporting by Thiam Ndiaga; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Vin Shahrestani)
By Thiam Ndiaga