Ziguinchor — Rebels belonging to the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) kidnapped 16 villagers in Bissine, 64 km east of Ziguinchor near the Guinea-Bissau border on 16 March before releasing them two days later, according to different local sources.
The villagers had returned to the site of their village, destroyed in the ongoing violence in Casamance, to weed the land, according to Moustapha Bassène, a representative from the Committee of Wise Men which has been involved in the Casamance peace process since November 2007.
MFDC member Antoine Diamacoune, the nephew of the now-deceased leader of the MFDC rebellion, told the press: "Our men came across people in the process of clearing the land in Bissine on Sunday morning. They were immediately arrested and transferred to our bases in the area for identification. We then decided to release them."
The abductees told the press they were well-treated. "We were not beaten and they respected our dignity," Sény Diatta, a teacher in Ziguinchor.
In the past rebels have threatened to take returnees hostage, but this is the first time they have acted on these words, a Senegalese military officer told IRIN.
This was also the first time villagers had tried to return to their previous homes unaccompanied by Senegalese army officers, according to Bassène.
"The [rebels] have done this to intimidate villagers wishing to return because they do not want these villages repopulated as they are close to their rebel bases," a Senegalese military officer told IRIN.
"The rebels fear that once the villagers have returned, the Senegalese army will set up bases to protect them, which the rebels see as a threat."
MFDC commander Cesar Badiate had previously warned Seny Diatta, the president of the rural community of Santhiaba Maniaque, near Ziguinchor, against any attempts to organise refugee and displaced people's returns in a letter sent in November 2007.
The rebels have also been opposed to proposed mine-clearance operation in these sites, apparently fearing this will encourage villagers to return to their homes.
Low-intensity conflict has simmered in southern Casamance since the 1980s despite a number of peace agreements being passed. On 26 February, 100 armed men allegedly belonging to the MFDC ambushed 40 passenger vehicles 60 km north of Ziguinchor.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]