On June 4th, at least 160 civilians, including “volunteer anti-terrorism fighters” were killed in the bloodiest string of Islamist attacks in Burkina Faso since 2015.
Twin attacks in the West African country’s volatile northern region, launched within the space of a few hours, left the scores of dead, including 120 children.
The largest massacre took place in Solhan, the capital of the region of the same name near the border with Mali and Niger in the so-called “three borders” zone. The town is known as a crossroads for thousands of prospective gold miners.
Assailants entered the town on about 20 motorbikes. At first they targeted an outpost of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), auxiliary forces of the Armed Forces in the fight against terrorism.
Then the terrorists moved towards houses where they massacred civilians indiscriminately. The attackers also looted, set fire to shops and burned vehicles before fleeing.
No responsibility for the attacks has been assumed, but two main groups operating in the area have been identified as possible instigators: a local al Qaeda affiliate and the Islamic State group in the Greater Sahara.
The armed forces reportedly arrived one to two hours after the jihadists left.
“Military units are supposedly about 20 km away and yet the assailants were able to carry out their killing spree without being intercepted,” said journalist Vincent Hugeux said.
The attack comes just a few weeks after a visit to the region by the Burkinabe Defence Minister, Chérif Sy, whose visit was meant to showcase the return of government authority after months of jihadist encroachment.
“It was badly timed,” said Hugeux. “The defence minister had visited the Sebba detachment on that occasion and had unwisely declared a return to normalcy.”
The first victims of the massacre were members of the VDP, a group made up of civilian volunteers who receive two weeks’ military training and are deployed to support the counter-insurgency.
While the VDP has achieved significant success in some regions, many analysts say that they have also exposed the civilian population to reprisals.
Whatever the reason, civilians are being increasingly targeted in Burkina Faso. The siege at Solhan was preceded a few hours earlier by another raid on the village of Tadaryat, in which at least 14 people, including a civilian soldier, were killed.
A week earlier, four people – including two members of the VDP – were killed in two other attacks in the same area.
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