The accounts are horrible. Women killed while carrying babies on their backs, the wounded pursued and villagers watching their neighbors being executed, fearing they would be next. These are some of the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Burkina Faso’s security forces in the north of the country, according to a statement on Tuesday from locals in the village of Karma where the violence occurred.
It was early last Thursday morning when villagers in Yatenga province woke up to a large group of armed men in military uniforms, driving motorcycles and armored trucks. “Some villagers, happy to see ‘our soldiers’, came out of their houses to welcome them. Unfortunately, this joy was cut short when the first shots rang out, also causing the first victims”, says the villagers’ statement.
At least 150 civilians may have been killed and many others injured in the violence, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement on Tuesday. The UN is calling for a swift, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into what it called the “horrific killing of civilians”.
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Earlier this week, Burkina Faso’s prosecutor said he had already opened an investigation into the killings, but that the death toll was 60, less than half the number estimated by the UN and local residents.
Jihadist fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have waged a violent insurgency in Burkina Faso for seven years. The violence has killed thousands and divided the country, leading to two coups last year.
Since Captain Ibrahim Traore took power in September 2022 in a second coup, extrajudicial killings of civilians have increased, according to rights groups and residents.
The incident, one of the deadliest against civilians by security forces, comes amid mounting allegations against the military for abuses against those it believes support jihadists.
Earlier this month, Burkina Faso’s government announced it would open further investigations into allegations of human rights violations by its security forces after a video appeared to show the extrajudicial killing of seven children in the north of the country.
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The Associated Press published its own findings about the video this month. The AP investigation determined that Burkina Faso security forces killed the children at a military base outside the town of Ouahigouya.
Days before last week’s attack, around 40 security sources were killed near Ouahigouya. Survivors said the soldiers accused them of being jihadist accomplices by letting them pass through their village, according to the villagers’ statement.
Since the violence, people in the community have not been able to bury their relatives, as an army cut-off prevented them from reaching the village, according to the statement.
The abuses will create a backlash against Burkina Faso’s junta and drive people into the hands of jihadists, conflict analysts say.
“Reported human rights abuses advance the militants’ playbook, give them talking points against security forces and aid their recruitment efforts in the north. This is a terrible recipe for consequences,” said Laith Alkhouri, director general of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory, which provides intelligence analysis.