Three Europeans and a soldier are missing in Burkina Faso after being attacked by gunmen during an anti-poaching patrol, the government said on Tuesday.
A special military wildlife unit was ambushed Monday morning while traveling with the foreigners, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from their base at the eastern town of Natiaboni, Yendifimba Jean-Claude Louari, according to the mayor of Fada N’gourma, the main town in the east. A large operation is underway to find them, he said.
Two of the foreigners were Spanish and one was Irish, according to security and government officials with close knowledge of the situation.
They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the press. Two military trucks and 12 motorcycles and guns were also stolen during the attack, they said.
Two soldiers wounded in the attack and evacuated to a military hospital in the capital, Ouagadougou, told AP they were attacked by jihadists who outnumbered their 15-person patrol.
One soldier was shot in the leg and the other in his arm, causing it to be amputated. They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
When the jihadists attacked, the soldiers tried to form a protective shield around the foreigners, but once the shooting stopped they realized they had disappeared, he said.
“We were discouraged. It’s like you leave your house with 10 people, you go to work and then you come back with eight people. What do you say to those two people’s families?” said one of the soldiers.
The foreigners had been traveling with the rangers for approximately one week, two of them were journalists and one was a trainer, said the soldiers.
The rangers were conducting their first mission in Arly National Park after finishing a six-month anti-poaching training program, he said.
Ireland’s foreign ministry told AP it was “aware of the reports and is liaising closely with international partners regarding the situation on the ground.”
The Spanish foreign ministry confirmed that two of its citizens were missing in Burkina Faso, according to a text message from a Spanish diplomat seen by The Associated Press.
The Spanish embassy in neighboring Mali was in contact with their families and is investigating the situation and working with local authorities, said the message.
Burkina Faso has been attacked by jihadist attacks linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that have killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million people.
The east is one of the hardest-hit parts of the country, and while it’s unclear which group operates where the attack occurred, conflict analysts say the area is known to be under jihadist control and that the groups engage in kidnappings as a way to fund their operations, said Flore Berger a researcher in the Sahel, the vast area south of the Sahara Desert that stretches across West Africa.
“Foreign nationals are a preferable target to be used as bargaining chips in exchange for ransom,” said Heni Nsaibia, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Since the early 2000s militant groups have developed a kidnapping industry in the Sahel, five foreign hostages are still missing, including two taken from Burkina Faso, he said.