Burkina Faso’s security forces allegedly executed 31 detainees earlier this month in what could amount to a “war crime”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday, calling for an immediate and impartial investigation.

“The Burkinabé security forces apparently executed 31 men in a brutal mockery of a counterterrorism operation that may amount to a war crime and could fuel further atrocities,” Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“The government should stop the abuse, fully investigate this terrible incident, and commit to a rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy,” she added.

The victims, all from the nomadic Muslim Peuhl or Fulani community, were reportedly killed within hours of being arrested in the northern town of Djibo on April 9, HRW said in a statement.

The NGO said it had interviewed 17 people with knowledge of the massacre, including 12 witnesses to the arrests and burials who said the men were arrested as they were going on about their daily activities including watering animals or sitting in front of their homes. None were carrying weapons when they were arrested, witnesses told HRW.

Three animal herders, including one reportedly with a mental health condition, and several men who had been displaced by violence elsewhere were among the victims, HWR said.

Local residents speculated they had been targeted by security forces because of the recent presence of armed Islamist groups around Djibo.

Islamist groups, including some associated with the Islamic State group, have been operating in the Sahel region since 2014 and the five countries particularly impacted — Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad — have struggled to contain the threat. A French operation to assist them is now in its sixth year.

According to HRW, at least 300 civilians have been killed by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso since 2017 while government security forces have killed “several hundred men” for their alleged support to these groups.

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