Burkina Faso army strikes killed dozens of civilians, says HRW

The army’s fight against rebels has been criticised as heavy-handed, with the HRW report being the latest instance of that criticism.

Two soldiers enter the Catholic church at the 10th RCAS army barracks in Kaya, Burkina Faso, April 10, 2021 [File: Sophie Garcia/AP Photo]Published On 25 Jan 202425 Jan 2024

International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday accused the Burkina Faso army of killing at least 60 civilians in drone strikes which the government said targeted armed groups.

The deaths occurred in three military drone strikes since August, two at crowded markets and another at a funeral, the rights group said in a new report.

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Since becoming head of state after a 2022 coup, Captain Ibrahim Traore has focused on a strong security response in reclaiming swathes of territory controlled by armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the ISIS (ISIL) group.

But those efforts have often been criticised as heavy-handed, with the HRW report being the latest instance of that criticism.

HRW said it interviewed dozens of witnesses between September and November 2023 and analysed photographs, videos and satellite images.

“The Burkina Faso military used one of the most accurate weapons in its arsenal to attack large groups of people, causing the loss of numerous civilian lives in violation of the laws of war,” the New York-based group said in its report.

The drone strikes “violated laws-of-war prohibitions against attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets and were apparent war crimes,” it added.

A series of drone attacks

On August 3, Burkina’s government-run Radiodiffusion Television du Burkina (RTB) channel reported a “successful” air operation against a group of armed fighters in the northern town of Bouro. RTB showed a video of a guided munition striking dozens of people and animals in a glade.

Locals told HRW that 28 men were killed and many wounded in a packed market.

They added that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) controlled Bouro and surrounding areas. Three survivors said four motorbikes ridden by rebels, entered the market at the moment of the strike, when hundreds of civilians were present.

On November 18, a military drone hit another crowded market, across the border in Mali, near the town of Boulkessi, according to the report. It said at least seven men were killed and at least five others injured.

An RTB reporter described the target as a “logistics base” for rebel fighters.

But a 69-year-old man, who lost two sons aged 20 and 40 in the strike, told HRW: “My sons had gone to the market to sell their products. They were traders, civilians, not fighters.”

Three days later, in the northern Burkinabe town of Bidi, a drone strike reportedly hit a tent where around a hundred people had gathered for a funeral, killing 24 men and a boy.

In its report, HRW says that residents are sometimes forced to collaborate with the rebels who control the areas.

The rights group said in the report that the Burkina government should “urgently and impartially investigate these apparent war crimes, hold those responsible to account, and provide adequate support for the victims and their families”.

Beyond the drone attacks, there have also been other instances of government forces acting with impunity in counterinsurgency operations.

In April 2023, 136 people including women and infants in the northern village of Karma were killed by security personnel, as reported by the NGO the Collective against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies