Demining has been halted in southern Senegal’s Casamance Region after 12 deminers were taken hostage by fighters with the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance (MFDC) on 3 May.
The hostages - all Senegalese members of private South African demining company Mechem - were seized in the village of Kaïlou, 20km west of the regional capital Ziguinchor, near the Guinea-Bissau border.
According to Seyni Diop, head of a division that helps mine victims at the government’s Anti-Mine Action Centre (CNAMS), demining has been temporarily suspended in Casamance. This comes just weeks after officials said Senegal was on track to meet the Ottawa convention with its commitment to ban anti-personnel landmines by 2015.
Mechem would not comment on the incident.
The rebels belong to the faction of César Atoute Badiaté, head of one of the three principal MFDC branches. The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the hostages and, along with other agencies, including the UN Development Programme, local NGO Apran/SDP and the government of Senegal, is involved in trying to negotiate their release.
Fred Weyers, head of Mechem in Ziguinchor, said they were leaving the negotiations to the state of Senegal.
A meeting had been held two months ago in San Domingos, northern Guinea-Bissau, between rebels and the head of CNAMS, which leads the demining process in Casamance, to enable demining to proceed.
At the meeting, the rebels said they could not guarantee the security of deminers.
“The MFDC considers that CNAMS has reached a red line beyond which the security of deminers cannot be guaranteed. MFDC considers demining in Casmance to be dependent on the peace process.”
Meanwhile, over 1,000 people participated in a silent march through the streets of Ziguinchor on 22 May, organized by the Women’s Peace Platform, to push for the hostages to be freed. The group released a communiqué, stating: “We once again appeal to MFDC fighters and to César Atoute Badiate in person, for the well-being of the population of Casamance, for their mothers, aunts and sisters, who we are. We implore you to liberate these 12 people.”
CNAMS has been leading humanitarian demining in Senegal since 2008. For many years, NGO Handicap International led demining but late last year, two new operators came on board, Mechem and a Norwegian operator, NPA, to reinforce the effort.