Sixty-six women and children who were kidnapped by armed assailants in northern Burkina Faso last week have been released, according to Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTP).
The mass kidnapping was unprecedented in Burkina Faso, which is grappling with a violent Islamist insurgency that began in neighboring Mali in 2015.
On Jan. 12 and Jan. 13, armed men seized the women and their children while they were scouring the bush for fruit and leaves outside two villages in the district of Arbinda, in the Sahel region’s Soum province.
Security forces staged a rescue operation and found 27 adult women and 39 babies, children and young girls in the adjacent Centre-North province.
“They have found freedom after eight long days in the hands of their kidnappers,” an RTP presenter said.
A government source confirmed the information but did not provide any details.
Burkina Faso is one of several countries in West Africa battling a rampant insurgency with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Jihadists have occupied territory in the country’s arid and mainly rural north, executing hundreds of villagers and displacing thousands more in the process.
They have also blockaded certain areas in recent months and made it increasingly dangerous to deliver supplies to trapped citizens.
Faced with acute food shortages, many villagers have resorted to picking wild fruit, leaves and seeds to feed their families. They say venturing into the bush makes them vulnerable to jihadist attacks.
The Sahel insurgency has killed thousands of people across the region and forced more than 2.7 million to flee their homes over the past decade, according to the United Nations.
Frustration over the authorities’ failure to restore security and protect civilians were contributing factors to military coups in Burkina Faso and Mali.