Gunmen abducted some 50 women in Burkina Faso’s northern province of Soum on January 12 and 13, the government has said.
Armed men seized the women as they were picking wild fruit outside the village of Liki, about 15km (9.32 miles) from the town of Arbinda, and in another district west of the town.
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“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 on Monday.
“All means available are being used, in the air and on the ground, to find these women,” a security source told AFP news agency.
“Aircraft are flying over the area to detect any suspect movement.”
According to local officials, the army and its civilian auxiliaries have carried out unsuccessful sweeps of the area.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk called for the release of the women in a statement on Monday.
“I call for the immediate and unconditional release of all the abducted women and for the national authorities to promptly conduct an effective, impartial and independent investigation to identify those responsible and hold them to account,” Turk said.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the abductions.
“Those abducted must be returned safely to their loved ones immediately and unconditionally, and those responsible should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Burkina Faso has been struggling to contain violent activity by armed groups with links to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) that spread from neighbouring Mali in 2015 despite costly international military efforts to contain it.
Thousands of civilians and members of the security forces have died, and some two million people have been displaced and forced to live in makeshift camps.
‘Verge of a humanitarian disaster’
A senior officer close to armed forces headquarters said the latest kidnapping is “the first really big kidnapping since the security crisis began”.
“Everything must be done to avoid a tragedy or a recurrence,” said the officer.
Armed group fighters have besieged towns around the country, preventing people and goods from moving freely. The town of Arbinda has been under an armed group blockade for years, making women more vulnerable to attacks if they try to leave, rights groups have said.
“It’s a very concerning and serious development in Burkina Faso that exposes the vulnerability of women in areas under blockade,” said Ousmane Diallo, a researcher at Amnesty International’s regional office for West and Central Africa.
“The rights of civilians and their rights to their livelihoods must be protected by all parties to the conflict,” Diallo said. “There needs to be more attention and more protection of civilians by the government in these besieged towns, but also [a] tailored approach to the protection of women and girls.”
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 UN says nearly one million people are living in blockaded areas in Burkina’s north and east.
Last June, Mahamadou Issoufou – former president of Niger and a representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – said authorities in the capital Ouagadougou control just 60 percent of the country.
Disgruntled army officers carried out two coups in 2022 in a show of anger at failures to roll back the conflict, with each military leader promising to prioritise security.
French diplomats have said Burkina Faso has engaged the services of the private Russian mercenary group the Wagner Group as part of efforts to tackle the conflict. Nana Akufo-Addo, president of neighbouring Ghana, also alleged the same thing in December.
Meanwhile, France, Burkina’s ally and former colonial power, issued a statement condemning the abduction and calling for the women’s immediate release.