At least 100 people were reportedly killed by an armed group in northern Burkina Faso near the Niger border over the weekend as extremist violence continues to plague the country that has seen thousands killed and millions flee from their homes in recent years.
While the attackers appeared to exclusively target men in the Saturday evening attack in the Seytanga district, there are conflicting reports on the death toll, which could be as high as 165, security sources told Reuters.
It’s still not clear which group was responsible for the massacre. Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants are conducting an insurgency in the region.
As many as 3,000 people fled to neighboring Dori, where aid agencies are located, a local official said.
“The terrorists came into the town on Saturday, market day,” one survivor who fled to Dori told AFP. “They opened fire as soon as they entered.”
“They only aimed at men. They went from shop to shop, sometimes torching it. They opened fire on anyone who tried to run away. They stayed in the town all night,” the survivor added.
AFP reported the provisional death toll at around 79 on Tuesday after 29 more bodies were discovered, but booby traps and mines have hampered search efforts.
The attack is said to be among the deadliest since the insurgency in Burkina began in 2016. The attack comes about a year after as many as 160 civilians were killed in an attack in the Yagha province of northeastern Burkina Faso.
As of early May, the United Nations estimated that 2 million had fled their homes since the insurgency began.
Government spokesman Lionel Bilgo told AFP that Monday’s massacre was “retaliation for the actions of the army which caused bloodshed” among the jihadist element.
The U.N. issued a statement condemning the attack, saying the perpetrators “claimed many victims.” The European Union also condemned the massacre and called for further investigation.
Although Burkina Faso was once considered relatively peaceful, the U.N. reported that a 50% rise in internal displacement in 2021 is the “highest proportions of internal displacement on the continent.”
The rise of insecurity led to protests and a military coup ousting President Rock Kabore in January. The demonstrations came as nearly 12,000 people were displaced in the West African nation in just two weeks in December, according to the U.N.
Coup leader Paul-Henri Damiba was sworn in as president in February, vowing to defeat Islamic extremists.
Release International warned in its Persecution Trends 2022 report that the “situation facing Christians in Burkina Faso is now similar to Nigeria,” where terror groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province have killed thousands and displaced millions.
According to the report, jihadis forced churches to close and meet in secret. The group warned that violence in the region would continue in 2022, noting the drawback of French troops from the area.
Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks Burkina Faso as the 32nd worst country regarding Christian persecution.
“The central government is very weak, particular in the east of the country where Islamic law is informally implemented by groups who’ve gained control over these areas,” Open Doors warned in a factsheet. “Jihadist violence has been rapidly increasing in recent years, and extremists have exploited the government’s weakness during the COVID-19 crisis to gain control of the country’s infrastructure.”
Jihadi violence has also impacted neighboring Sahel countries like Niger and Mali. According to government figures, in May 2021, at least 137 people, including nearly two dozen children, were killed by insurgents along the Mail border in southwestern Niger.
In February, Islamic State-affiliated militants killed at least 40 in an attack in the Tessit area of northern Mali near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger.
Niger ranks as the 33rd-worst country on the Open Doors World Watch List, while Mali is ranked at No. 24.