At least 53 soldiers and militia fighters have been killed in a suspected terrorist attack in Burkina Faso, the latest in a growing wave of instability in West Africa, after a succession of military coups.
All but 17 of the dead were militia volunteers, with the rest professional soldiers. The force had been deployed to assist civilians who had been displaced by the terrorists.
The violence was reported in Koumbri in Yatenga province in the north of the country.
About 30 members of the security forces were injured, the army said. It claimed that several attackers had been “neutralised” in a counter-operation and their combat equipment destroyed. Operations are still under way in the area, it added.
Regional group the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) condemned the attack.
The West African bloc said it had learnt “with shock” about the death of the soldiers and civilian volunteers, condemning the “terrorist attacks” and expressing its “solidarity with the Burkinabe people”.
War between the government and Islamist rebels has raged in Burkina Faso for eight years, displacing as many as two million people. Insurgents, including the Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram, known for committing atrocities in Nigeria, were also operating in Mali, to the north of Burkina Faso.
That sparked a joint French-Malian and Burkinabe operation to stamp out the armed groups, but French advisory forces have since been expelled from both countries, following coups in 2021 in Mali and Burkina Faso last year.
The military takeovers were boosted by rampant unemployment and economic decline in both countries and growing distrust of France, a former colonial power in West Africa.
In Niger, which has also been gripped by terrorist insurgency, similar anti-French sentiment and economic woes also boosted the armed takeover in July.
The new regime in power there is expecting to expel French forces shortly, who’d also been present in a counter-terrorism assistance mission. The Niger crisis prompted a threat by the West African security and economic bloc Ecowas, currently led by Nigeria, to intervene militarily if the democratically elected government of Mohamed Bazoum was not restored.
Burkina Faso and Mali both threatened to back Niger if such an intervention happened, and diplomatic talks are continuing to resolve the standoff.
Niger in jeopardy
The disruption to counter-terrorism operations in Mali and Burkina Faso, following their coups, has raised more fears for Niger.
Since President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by members of his presidential guard in July, the future of a relatively successful programme to rehabilitate ex-extremists has been unclear.
The military regime hasn't indicated whether it will continue the efforts, jeopardising the fate of hundreds of former extremists who returned and rely on government support.
The initiative was put in place in 2016 under Mr Bazoum, then interior minister, to stem the violence linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS that has for years plagued parts of Niger and the wider Sahel region.
About 1,000 former extremists have returned since its inception, according to Boubacar Hamidou, an official with the government arm that leads it. They are vetted and given psychological assessments.
If accepted to the programme, they receive a monthly stipend plus paid housing and the option to integrate into the army, learn a trade such as carpentry, mechanics or sewing or work in the public sector, Mr Hamidou said.
Niger was seen as one of the last democratic partners in the Sahel that western countries could work with to beat back the growing insurgency, with the US, France and other European countries pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up and training the military.
The defection programme and Mr Bazoum's efforts to dialogue with some extremist groups were seen as an alternative to those military solutions – and it yielded some positive results, Niger experts and officials say.
Out of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – three of the Sahel countries hit hardest by extremist violence – Niger was the only one to see an improvement in security, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Attacks on civilians decreased by nearly 50 per cent, in the first six months of this year compared with the previous six months, a data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project.
Analysts say the defection programme played a part in this.