Unidentified militants killed more than a dozen soldiers in northern Burkina Faso Monday in what the army described as a “major attack” by “terrorist armed groups”.
A “provisional report” by Burkina Faso’s army put the toll at “more than a dozen” soldiers killed and several wounded. With some soldiers still missing, the death toll could hit 20 dead, said security sources.
The attack occurred in the early hours of the morning in Koutougou in Soum province, according to an army statement.
“In reaction to this barbaric attack, a vast air and land search operation is seeking to neutralise the many assailants,” the statement added. “A provisional report states that more than a dozen soldiers were killed, and several were wounded.”
Once a pocket of calm in the Sahel, Burkina has suffered a spillover of Islamist violence from its neighbours, including the kind of ethnic attacks that have destabilised Mali in recent years.
A rising wave of jihadist violence began in the north of the impoverished country around four years ago, but has since spread to the east, near the border with Togo and Benin.
Deteriorating security prompted the government in Ougadougou to declare a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December, including Soum.
Al Qaeda-linked groups
The heaviest Islamist attack against Burkina’s army to date left 12 soldiers dead at Nassoumbou, also in Soum province, in December 2016.
More than 40 jihadists aboard pickup trucks and on motorcycles laid assault to a military post close to the Mali border.
Overnight Thursday to Friday armed men described as jihadists raided a village in the restive north, killing 15 people, plundering and burning shops, a regional governor said.
Most attacks in the former French colony are attributed to the Ansarul Islam group, which emerged near the Mali border in December 2016, and to the JNIM (Group to Support Islam and Muslims), which has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Those groups are believed to be responsible for around 500 deaths since 2015. Burkina’s capital Ouagadougou has been attacked three times.
Hostile, poorly administered terrain
The tiny, former French colony is part of a vast region in the Sahel where around 4,500 French troops deployed under ‘Operation Barkhane’ are facing huge logistical challenges in hostile terrain.
‘Operation Barkhane’ emerged from ‘Operation Serval,’ a French military offensive to dislodge Tuareg and jihadist militants in northern Mali. But the unrest has spilled over from northern Mali into neighbouring countries triggering concerns of the French military presence feeding the jihadist violence in a poorly administered region.
Efforts led by France to stop a region on Europe’s doorstep becoming a launchpad for attacks at home are increasingly trapped in an endless cat-and-mouse game with well-armed jihadists, who know the terrain and hide easily among civilians.