Burkina Faso’s security forces allegedly executed 31 unarmed detainees in the northern town of Djibo, Human Rights Watch said on Monday, calling for an immediate investigation.
The men, all from the Fulani ethnic group, were allegedly killed just hours after being arrested on April 09 during a government counterterrorism operation, the New York-based rights group said.
The apparent massacre in Djibo, about 200 kilometers north of Ouagadougou, the capital, occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region.
The growth of Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) has fueled violence that had displaced over 775,000 people by late March.
“The Burkinabè 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,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government should stop the abuse, fully investigate this terrible incident, and commit to a rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy,” Dufka continued.
HRW interviewed 17 people over the killings, including 12 witnesses to the arrests and later burial of the victims, the statement said.
Local people speculated that the Fulani had been targeted because of the recent presence of some armed Islamists around Djibo.
They said scores of security force personnel were involved in the operation, which lasted several hours, HRW said.
The Burkina Faso government has three key security force camps in Djibo – a police station, a gendarme base, and a base housing the Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (GFAT), a mixed counterterrorism force.
Residents said they believed those implicated in the April 09 killings were based in the GFAT camp, in part because of the size of the operation, and because it is the only camp in which they’ve seen armored cars.
The victims were arrested from several neighborhoods, or “sectors,” while they were watering their animals, walking, or sitting in front of their homes. They were taken away in a convoy of about 10 military vehicles including pickup trucks, an armored car, and motorcycles.
After hearing gunfire, local people found the bodies of 31 men, last seen in the custody of the security forces, said HRW. Several had had their eyes or hands bound.
None of the witnesses saw any of the arrested men with a firearm.
Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries, has battled a jihadist insurgency since 2015. The conflict has provoked attacks on Fulani herders whom other communities accuse of supporting militants. (Source: HRW)