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Islamist militants kidnap around 50 women in Burkina Faso

Islamist militants kidnapped around 50 women while they were foraging for food in Burkina Faso’s northern province of Soum, a hotbed of jihadist activity, the Burkinabe government announced on Monday.

The mass kidnapping, which occurred on January 12 and 13, is an unprecedented occurrence in the insurgency that has spread to Burkina Faso from neighbouring Mali in 2015 despite the costly international military efforts to contain it.

Armed men seized the women as they were picking wild fruit outside the village of Liki, some 15 kilometres from the town of Aribinda, and then at another location in the same district.

“Searching has started with the aim of finding all these innocent victims safe and sound,” the government said in a statement.

The relatives of the missing women told Reuters that they 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 that could be ground into powder for children.

The shortage of food has been caused in at least part by the insurgents themselves, as they have blockaded parts of the arid northern region of the country in recent months, causing acute food shortages, as it has become increasingly dangerous to deliver supplies to the area.

“Women can walk up to 4 kilometres [into the bush] to look for food,” said one villager in Aribinda, who asked not to be named for security concerns.

The villager added that the men were too scared to venture farther away from their homes for fear of being shot by jihadists. “That is why the women were kidnapped,” the villager said.

An example of how dangerous it is to venture into the area was when in September the militants attacked a 150-vehicle convoy bringing supplies to the northern town of Djibo, the capital of Soum Province. 27 government soldiers, as well as several civilians were killed in the clash.

While Westerners and local men have been occasionally captured, women had not previously been abducted in such numbers. Mass kidnappings of women had, however, been carried out by other Islamist groups such as Boko Haram, currently conducting a separate insurgency in northern Nigeria against that country’s central authorities.

Burkina Faso is one of several countries in West Africa battling a violent insurgency with links to al Qaeda and the Islamic State that has seen the seizure of large expanses of territory over the past decade. As a result of the conflict, thousands have been killed and more than 2.7 million displaced across the Sahel, and according to the United Nations, the insecurity has adversely affected agriculture, contributing to rising hunger levels.

Frustrations over the authorities’ failure to restore security and protect civilians were contributing factors to the two military coups that had taken place in Burkina Faso last year.

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