ABIDJAN At least 21 children have been kidnapped in Ivory Coast since December and most have been found dead with their bodies mutilated, authorities said, in a wave of ritual killings some residents fear may be linked to upcoming elections.
Police chief Brindou Mbia said security forces had been placed on high alert after the spate of child abductions but he declined to speculate what was behind the killings.
In the commercial capital Abidjan, where at least three children have been abducted, residents expressed concern for the safety of their young ones.
Many said the kidnappings were likely linked to ritual killings by corrupt businessmen and politicians, who used body part in ceremonies supposed to confer supernatural powers.
"These are mystical and occult practices," said Didier Kobenan, an electrician. "This is about black magic and they need these human sacrifices to get money and power."
Presidential and possibly legislative elections are scheduled to take place toward the end of the year in the world's largest cocoa producer and the economic motor of francophone West Africa.
A spate of child abductions was recorded ahead of elections in 2010.
The kidnappings have led to calls for action from the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, which urged authorities to do everything possible to quickly identify those responsible.
"UNICEF is deeply worried by the kidnapping of children and the mutilated bodies that have been found," UNICEF's representative in Ivory Coast, Adele Khudr, said in a statement.
Dominique Ouattara, the wife of Presidente Alassane Ouattara, appealed on Monday for the Interior Ministry to take action to protect children.
"Let us avoid leaving children unwatched," she said.
(Reporting by Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams)