Ivory Coast's government on Wednesday appealed to people to refrain from mob justice after a spate of kidnappings and ritual killings of children.
More than two dozen children have been kidnapped and murdered in Ivory Coast since the beginning of December, according to government officials.
Many residents suggested the kidnappings were linked to the use of body parts in ceremonies supposed to confer supernatural powers.
Some victims' bodies have been discovered mutilated, fueling speculation on the streets of the West African country that the crimes are being ordered by power-hungry businessmen or politicians or even Internet scam artists.
The resulting hysteria has led to attempted lynchings, particularly in the commercial capital Abidjan, in recent weeks.
“The people must not try to deal with this themselves. “The people must not judge and punish those they consider guilty,” government spokesman Bruno Kone said. “Innocent people have been targeted by the anger of the population in some neighborhoods.”
Speaking after a cabinet meeting, he said that while the psychosis created by the brutal crimes was understandable, individuals suspected of involvement in the killings should be brought to police stations.
“That may help us understand and better deal with what's happening. If the person is lynched or killed he can't explain why he's doing this,” Kone said.
Though relatively rare, cases of ritual murders have been recorded in several African countries, with body parts sometimes used in ceremonies believed to confer supernatural powers. Children are particularly sought out as targets.
A previous spate of child abductions was recorded in Ivory Coast before elections in 2010. Ivorians are due to vote later this year in presidential and possibly legislative elections.
Powerful businessmen and politicians have been alleged to participate in ritual killings in several West and Central African countries. In Gabon, a senator was arrested in 2013 after the killer of a 12-year-old girl identified him as commissioning the crime, but the case was later dismissed.
Ivorian authorities have deployed around 1,500 police, soldiers and gendarmes as part of an operation aimed at stopping the killings and identifying the culprits.
Nearly 1,000 people have so far been questioned by police.
Only a handful of arrests have been made, however, including one man caught during an attack with a machete.
A 19-year-old was arrested along with two accomplices after he kidnapped his two-year-old brother and attempted to force his father to pay a ransom.
Authorities have also closed over 500 illegal Internet cafes amid suspicion that Ivory Coast's notorious cyber criminals are behind the killings.