OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO (AFP, NYTIMES) - Armed assailants killed at least 160 civilians, including around 20 children, in a village in Burkina Faso’s volatile north, the deadliest attack since Islamist violence erupted in the West African country in 2015, local officials said on Sunday (June 6).
The slaughter in the early hours of Saturday followed the slaying of 14 people late Friday in the village of Tadaryat in the same region where extremists linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have been targeting civilians and soldiers.
In Solhan, in the region near the borders of Mali and Niger, local sources said they have recovered a total of 160 bodies from three mass graves.
“It’s the local people themselves who have started exhuming the bodies and burying them after transporting them,” one local source said.
An earlier toll from local sources had put the dead at 138, while a government toll stood at 132 dead and around 40 wounded as of late Saturday.
UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman said he was “outraged” over the massacre.
Guterres “strongly condemns the heinous attack and underscores the urgent need for the international community to redouble support to Member States in the fight against violent extremism and its unacceptable human toll,” Stephane Dujarric said in a statement, offering Burkinabe authorities the UN’s “full support”.
The attackers struck first at a gold mine near the village of Sobha, near the border with Niger, according to Mr Rida Lyammouri, a Washington-based expert, before then going after civilians.
They also attacked the village market, the government said in a statement.
"It's definitely one of the deadliest attacks in Burkina Faso in years," said Mr Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South, a Morocco-based think-tank.
Burkina Faso and its neighbours have faced a resurgence of extremist violence in recent years.
Once one of the most stable nations in West Africa, Burkina Faso has been trapped in spiralling violence since Islamist terrorist groups claimed their first attacks in 2015. Since then, the country has faced hundreds of attacks, some carried out by these terrorists and others by local rebels.
The assailants have stormed a number of villages in the region known as Liptako-Gourma, a border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where the attack on Saturday took place.
Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore declared a 72-hour period of national mourning, calling the attack a "despicable act". The government described Saturday's assailants as terrorists, but no group has yet claimed responsibility.
Saturday's attack occurred in an area where an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, known by the initials JNIM, usually operates. Although the group is not known to attack civilians at this magnitude, according to Mr Lyammouri, it has targeted family members of a local self-defence group in recent months.
After France began a military intervention in 2013 to counter Islamist violence in Mali, many members of the remaining militant groups, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda, moved south near the border with Burkina Faso.
The violence that emerged from the groups' move has fuelled one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in the world, with more than 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes in Burkina Faso, according to the United Nations' humanitarian affairs body. The country is also hosting some 20,000 refugees from neighbouring Mali who are seeking safety from Islamist terrorist attacks.
Burkina Faso's military has been accused of failing to protect civilians, and soldiers have also killed a growing number of civilians, stoking the resentment of local populations.
Saturday's attack comes months after attackers killed 137 people in coordinated raids on villages in south-western Niger.
Several foreigners have also been taken hostage or killed in Burkina Faso in recent years. In 2019, two French soldiers were killed in a raid to rescue four hostages: two Frenchmen, an American and a South Korean citizen.
In April, two Spanish journalists and an Irish ranger were also killed in an ambush in south-eastern Burkina Faso, near the border with Benin.