OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) – International advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that it believed security forces in Burkina Faso had summarily executed 31 unarmed detainees earlier this month during operations against Islamist militants.
The bullet-riddled bodies of the men from the Fulani ethnic group were discovered in the northern town of Djibo on April 9, shortly after they had been arrested by security forces and taken away in a convoy, 17 witnesses and people with knowledge of the situation told HRW.
The defence ministry said in a statement that the minister had ordered an investigation on April 10 and that perpetrators would be sanctioned if the allegations proved to be true.
The government is struggling to contain jihadist groups in northern Burkina Faso, who have stoked ethnic conflict by closely associating themselves with Fulani herders. As a result, Fulani civilians have borne the brunt of reprisals by soldiers and vigilantes, rights groups say.
Since 2017, armed Islamist groups, some with ties to al Qaeda and Islamic State, have killed more than 300 civilians in Burkina Faso, while the government has killed several hundred men for their alleged support of these groups, according to HRW.
Burkinabe officials have promised to investigate similar allegations in the past but rights group say the government has not done enough to hold perpetrators accountable.
“The Burkinabe security forces apparently executed 31 men in a brutal mockery of a counter-terrorism operation that may amount to a war crime and could fuel further atrocities,” said Corinne Dufka, HRW’s director for the conflict-hit Sahel region in West Africa.
“The government should stop the abuse, fully investigate this terrible incident, and commit to a rights-respecting counter-terrorism strategy,” Dufka said in the report.
The defence ministry said in its statement that Burkinabe forces were committed to not stigmatising particular ethnic communities “as the success of their missions depends on the confidence and collaboration of local populations”.
Last year was Burkina Faso’s deadliest in recent memory, and the violence has continued unabated this year. Two attacks in northern regions in January killed 36 and 39 people, respectively, while at least 43 people were killed in raids on northern villages by unidentified assailants in March.
(Reporting by Henry Wilkins; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Aaron Ross and Giles Elgood)