DAKAR, Senegal — More than 60 women and girls who had been abducted last week in the West African nation of Burkina Faso were freed on Friday, the national broadcaster said.
The kidnappings took place outside two villages near the northern city of Arbinda as the women were foraging for wild fruits and leaves. But on Friday, the television channel RTB said that the 62 women and girls, as well as four babies, had been found and taken to Ouagadougou, the capital.
The broadcaster played footage of a group of women sitting on the ground, some clutching buckets and jerrycans, while military officers wearing fatigues stood around them. Thirty-nine of them were younger than 18, the report said.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country that once prided itself on its people’s tolerance for difference, has been overrun by extremist groups loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have spread in recent years from neighboring Mali, where they made incursions about a decade ago.
Those jihadist groups have gained footholds in Burkina Faso’s north and east, killing thousands and displacing two million people — about 10 percent of the country’s population, according to the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.
The country’s troubles have sometimes been compounded by its armed forces, which have carried out extrajudicial killings in villages where residents were suspected of supporting the jihadists, and by armed vigilante groups that have sprung up to defend communities but have little training and often also kill with impunity.
In the country’s north, where the women where abducted, the jihadist groups have prevented trucks carrying food from using roads, forcing residents to venture farther out to get supplies to avoid going hungry.
Armed militants kidnapped the women, girls and babies in two separate groups on Thursday and Friday last week, according to the government, which said in a statement on Monday that about 50 women had been abducted. The news of their release on Friday suggested that the number of victims might have been higher than originally stated.
It was also unclear Friday night if all of the women and girls had been rescued, or if some had been killed. The military provided no details about how the women and children had been released.
Despite having lost vast swaths of territory to extremist groups, members of Burkina Faso’s army ousted the country’s democratically elected president a year ago, blaming him for not doing enough to stabilize the country. Then, eight months later, a captain carried out another coup, arguing again that the country’s military leader had weakened its security.
That captain, Ibrahim Traoré, became the country’s new leader and made it his priority to recover territories lost to armed groups. But the government controls only about half of the country, according to estimates by research groups and regional leaders.
Nearly one million people live in blockaded areas in the country’s north and east, according to the United Nations. Convoys escorted by the military sometimes bring supplies, often at great risk.
In August 2021, 80 people, including 65 civilians, were killed in an attack on a convoy taking them to Arbinda. Dozens of civilians were killed in a similar operation in the region last September.