At least 11 soldiers were killed in Burkina Faso on Wednesday as Burkinabes were mourning dozens of victims who had died in double attacks targeting the country’s north a day earlier.
There was worldwide condemnation after Tuesday’s attacks, the worst assault in the country for five years, in which at least 35 civilians, mostly women, and seven soldiers were killed in Arbinda town and at a military base in the volatile Soum province. According to the army, 80 assailants also died in gunfire exchanges.
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Early on Wednesday, an army patrol near Hallale in the Sahel region – in Soum province as well – was ambushed, according to Radio Omega. As well as the 11 soldiers, at least five fighters were killed in the assault some 60km (37 miles) from the first attacks.
All Christmas celebrations were cancelled in the wake of Tuesday’s attack, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered his “deep condolences” to the victims’ families.
“The secretary-general conveys the solidarity of the United Nations to the government and people of Burkina Faso,” Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement, underlining the UN’s continued support for the Sahel region in their efforts against “terrorism and violent extremism.”
In his Christmas message, Pope Francis denounced attacks on Christians in Africa and prayed for victims of conflict, natural disasters and disease on the world’s poorest continent.
The pontiff urged “comfort to those who are persecuted for their religious faith, especially missionaries and members of the faithful who have been kidnapped, and to the victims of attacks by extremist groups, particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.”
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.
War on Terror
Earlier in December, leaders of the G5 Sahel nations called for closer cooperation and international support in the battle against an armed threat that has spread across the vast Sahel region, especially in Burkina Faso and Niger, having started when rebels revolted in northern Mali in 2012.
Michael Amoah, author of The New Pan Africanism: Globalism and the Nation-State in Africa and a fellow at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera: “We Sahelian countries have played a major role in the war on terror, particularly in hosting military bases … for example, Ivory Coast will now be hosting an anti-terror training camp.
“As a result, they are receiving a backlash for their contribution,” he added.
David Otto, counterterrorism director at Global Risk International, a security management consultancy, told Al Jazeera that many fighters in the region were previously engaged in armed campaigns in the Middle East.
“Most of the African states in the Sahel region, for example, have a lot of foreign fighters who travelled to Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“Now they have come through Libya, and they are exploiting the poverty within the region. They are taking advantage of the lack of coordination between the countries, irrespective of the fact that they have the G5 Sahel.”
Otto added that public trust in some of the affected governments was falling.
“Tactically what the [armed] groups have been doing is to make sure that they keep the military on the offensive. Most of their targets have been military. The cracks in the military are a significant factor.”
In Burkina Faso, more than 700 people have been killed since 2015 and some 560,000 are currently internally displaced, according to the UN.