At least 180 civilians have been killed in recent months in a single town in Burkina Faso, with evidence pointing towards the country’s often-accused security forces, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Between November 2019 and June this year, groups of dozens of dead bodies were found often tied and blindfolded, strewn along major highways, beneath bridges and across fields in the rural region, the report published on Thursday said. Most of the bodies were buried by residents while the remains of others were left unclaimed.
Djibo, a northern town at the heart of jihadist conflict across north, central and eastern parts of the country, had become a killing field, the report said, amid widespread executions by security forces.
As violence from jihadist groups aligned with al-Qaida and Islamic State has raged in the landlocked west African country, government forces long accused of rights abuses have increased their operations, often with deadly consequences.
Residents interviewed by the rights organisation said most of those killed were identified as ethnic Fulani, or Peuhl, who are often judged to be complicit with jihadist groups at large within the country and the surrounding Sahel region.
“Existing information points toward government security forces,” said Corinne Dufka, the Sahel director at HRW. “It’s critical to have impartial investigations, evidence properly gathered, and families informed about what happened to their loved ones.”
The report centres on interviews with 23 witnesses in the Fulani-majority town, who described seeing dead bodies and conducting burials. They did not witness the killings but believed security forces were responsible.
HRW could not independently verify their claims. Following the report the government said it would investigate the killings, which are the latest suspected by security forces, yet also said jihadists wearing stolen army uniforms could be responsible for the deaths in Djibo.
The defence minister, Moumina Cheriff Sy, said: “It is difficult for the population to distinguish between armed terrorist groups and the defence and security forces.”
Rights groups say a series of government promises to investigate rights abuses have yielded little genuine action.
As a military presence has increased in towns such as Djibo in response to the terror threat, civilian deaths, particularly along ethnic lines, have become commonplace.
In April, 31 men were found executed after security forces detained them in Djibo. Residents told HRW the men were indiscriminately targeted after an Islamist presence was detected in the region.
The abuses have exacerbated ethnic tensions and resentment, which jihadist groups have exploited.
Last month, countries at a security summit of regional and European leaders warned Burkina Faso’s authorities that troops found to have committed human rights abuses would be punished severely.
Since 2016, jihadist groups have gained an increasing foothold in the country, with the violence spreading from Mali and Niger and across the Sahel.
Hundreds of Burkinabe civilians have been killed and almost a million displaced by the conflict, leading to one of the most rapidly escalating humanitarian crises in the world. According to the UN more than 3 million people, including 831,000 refugees, are displaced across the Sahel.
The violence in Burkina Faso has gradually spread from the north and centre to the east of the country, where in recent months a wave of attacks against remote villages has fuelled further mass displacement of thousands of families to the nearby towns of Gayéri and Fada.