An attack in Burkina Faso on Tuesday killed 35 civilians, almost all of them women, in one of the deadliest assaults to hit the West African country in nearly five years of violence.
Seven soldiers and 80 armed fighters were also killed in the double attack on a military base and Arbinda town in Soum province, in the country’s north, according to the military.
“A large group of terrorists simultaneously attacked the military base and the civilian population in Arbinda,” the army chief of staff said in a statement.
“The heroic action of our soldiers has made it possible to neutralise 80 terrorists,” President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said. “This barbaric attack resulted in the death of 35 civilians, most of them women.”
Remis Dandjinou, communications minister and government spokesman, later said 31 of the civilian victims were women.
“People, women for the most part, were getting water and got murdered in cold blood by the terrorists while they were retreating. We must show compassion with the population, that is why all flags will fly at half mast for two days and all Christmas celebrations are cancelled.”
Islam is the dominant religion in Burkina Faso, a country of about 20 million people, but there is a sizeable Christian minority of about 20 percent.
The president has declared 48-hours of national mourning.
The morning raid was carried out dozens of fighters on motorbikes and lasted several hours before troops, backed by the air force, drove the attackers back, the army said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but violence in Burkina Faso has before been blamed on fighters linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) groups.
“This is the worst attack ever, as far as I know, in Burkina Faso, which had its first terrorism attack only in 2015,” said William Lawrence, visiting professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School. “Both their frequency and lethality have been increasing, but this is much much worse.
“This is a group led by someone from Burkina Faso, whose recruiting fighters from Burkina Faso, even though they launch attacks from Mali. And while they are trying to sow chaos and they are under pressure from the French, their main goal is to liberate this area and establish an Islamic State, not unlike what we saw in north Mali in 2012.”
Leaders of the G5 Sahel nations held summit talks in Niger earlier this month, calling for closer cooperation and international support against attacks.
Violence has spread across the Sahel, especially in Burkina Faso and Niger, since 2012 when fighters revolted in northern Mali.
The Sahel region lies to the south of the Sahara Desert and stretches across the breadth of the African continent.
The G5 group is made up of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, whose impoverished armies have the support of French forces as well as the United Nations in Mali.
In Burkina Faso, more than 700 people have been killed since 2015 and about 560,000 are currently internally displaced, according to the UN.
Attacks usually strike the north and east of the country, though the capital Ouagadougou has been targeted three times.
Prior to Tuesday’s attack, Burkina security forces said they had killed about 100 fighters in several operations since November.
In November, an ambush on a convoy transporting employees of a Canadian mining company killed 37 people.
Attacks have intensified this year as the under-equipped, poorly trained Burkina Faso army struggles to contain the violence.
“They (fighters) are going to keep going … with what the French are doing, and other security forces in the region,” said Lawrence. “They will keep attacking and continue to recruit people because the security forces in Burkina have themselves been committing some atrocities.
“Populations are one the run now and they do not know who to trust.”