KIGALI, Rwanda

Nine Senegalese soldiers have been taken hostage in neighboring Gambia and operations are underway to rescue them, Senegal’s military said late on Tuesday.

Two Senegalese soldiers were also killed in clashes with separatist rebels in southern Gambia on Monday.

The missing soldiers are likely being held hostage by the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) rebel group, according to a Senegalese military statement.

“Operations continue to find them and secure the area,” the army said.

One MFDC rebel was killed and three others captured in the fighting, it added.

The soldiers were monitoring timber trafficking as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission called ECOMIG, which is backed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).​​​​​​​

In the last five months, 77 trucks illegally transporting timber from Senegal have been intercepted by Senegalese forces deployed in the border area, according to the army.

“More than ever committed to their sacred mission of protecting the national sanctuary, the armed forces will continue to work tirelessly to find the missing soldiers and to preserve the forest,” the statement added.

Formed in 1982, the MFDC has been fighting for independence for Senegal’s southern region of Casamance, which borders Gambia.

A cease-fire declared in 2014 is often violated. The Senegalese government blames the group for occasional attacks and accuses it of trafficking timber between Senegal and Gambia to generate funds.

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