Dozens of people are feared dead following an attack by Islamic militants on a village in Burkina Faso, the latest bloody incident in an unprecedented surge of violence across the restive Sahel region.
Details of the attack, which occurred on Saturday and targeted the village of Silgadji in the northern Soum province, were still unclear on Tuesday but a security official said casualties in the assault totalled between “10 and 30 dead”.
In many such instances, initial death tolls are revised upwards when investigators reach the often remote areas where the raids take place.
Islamic extremists were still in the vicinity of the village on Monday, a resident in nearby Bourzanga town said, citing accounts from those who had fled.
“The terrorists surrounded the people at the village market, before separating them into two groups. The men were executed and the women were ordered to leave the village,” the source said. “Security teams are trying to get to the site but access to the village has probably been booby-trapped with homemade mines, and they are having to proceed carefully.”
Though once considered resistant to the phenomenon of Islamic extremism, Burkina Faso has suffered a rapid rise in Islamist extremism in recent years, a spillover of violence in neighbouring Mali.
The number of deaths from Islamist-linked attacks in Burkina Faso rose from about 80 in 2016 to more than 1,800 in 2019.
There were more than 4,000 deaths across the Sahel reported last year, according to the UN.
Saturday’s attack follows a massacre of 36 people at two villages in the northern Sanmatenga province earlier this month.
Extremist violence in the Sahel intensified after a coalition of Islamists and local separatist tribesmen took control over much of northern Mali in 2012.
A seven-year campaign led by French troops, the deployment of hundreds of US special forces, massive aid for local militaries and a billion dollar-a-year United Nations peacekeeping operation have been unable to decisively weaken the multiple overlapping insurgencies in the region and security has continued to deteriorate.
European officials are worried the Sahel is close to a tipping point that could see an irreversible slide into violent chaos that will strengthen extremist groups and send a new wave of migrants to Europe.
There are also concerns that the US will withdraw a significant proportion of its troops deployed in Africa, possibly undermining French military efforts in the region.
On Monday French officials said they hoped “good sense” would prevail and the United States would not cut crucial intelligence and logistics support for the French force of 4,500 troops based in Mali.
The Pentagon has announced plans to withdraw hundreds of military personnel from Africa as it redirects resources to address challenges from China and Russia after two decades focused on counter-terrorism operations. Those cuts could deepen following an ongoing global troop review.
France believes it is time to increase, not ease, pressure on militants to prevent “Islamic State from rebuilding in the Sahel,” a senior French defence ministry official said.
The US currently has 6,000 military personnel in Africa, though only several hundred are deployed against militants in the Sahel.
Although some experts say a repositioning of forces is overdue, many US officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.
“Any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons wrote earlier this month.
Gen François Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said that the loss of US intelligence from intercepted communications would be the “biggest setback”.
“I’m doing my utmost to prevent this from happening,” he said, adding that French drone-based spying systems would not be operational until year-end.
France said this month it would deploy 220 additional troops to the region, despite rising anti-French sentiment in some countries and criticism at home that its forces are bogged down.
Some French analysts have dismissed the decision as a political gesture and called for greater emphasis on a strategy that addresses the failings of local states in the Sahel and broader economic issues.
Burkina Faso, one of the most impoverished countries in the world, saw a tenfold rise in those displaced by the violence over 2019, with more than 560,000 forced out of their homes by December, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. The figure is predicted to rise to 900,000 people by April
“Burkina Faso needs more than bullets and bombs. Military engagement alone is failing to protect vulnerable communities. Donors … have not yet responded to the enormous humanitarian needs with equal emphasis,” warned NRC’s secretary general Jan Egeland, on a visit to the country this week.
Hunger is also a threat, with one in ten people in Burkina Faso likely to need food assistance by June.
Attacks on children in the Sahel have also spiked over the past year. Mali recorded 571 grave violations against children during the first three quarters of 2019, compared to 544 in 2018 and 386 in 2017, according to Unicef.
Since the start of 2019, more than 670,000 children across the region have been forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict and insecurity.
Burkina Faso’s army is ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with assaults that usually involve hundreds of highly mobile, lightly-armed militants travelling on motorbikes or in pick up trucks.