A convoy carrying dozens of displaced civilians hoping to return to their homes in central-northern Burkina Faso was ambushed by armed assailants, who then separated the men from the group and killed 25 of them, the United Nations has said.
The attack late on Sunday took place some 9km (five miles) from the town of Pissila in Sanmatenga province, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.
The women and children were let go, the UNHCR said in a statement based on survivors’ testimony. One man who was left for dead also survived.
“The attack on the (internally displaced people) occurred as they were returning to their homes from Pissila, hoping for an improved security situation there,” the UN said.
Ioli Kimyaci, UNHCR’s representative in Burkina Faso, denounced the “brutal and callous” attack. “Innocent civilians are seeking safety but instead are paying with their lives with alarming frequency,” she said.
An impoverished country of some 20 million people, Burkina Faso is one of several West African states in recent years to have been gripped by escalating violence that has spread across the western portion of the Sahel region.
Last year, clashes between government forces, bandits and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso. More than one million Burkinabe people have been displaced by the conflict.
For many years, Burkina Faso’s various ethnic groups have been well-integrated but more recently armed groups have been trying to force division between them in an attempt to stoke violence, according to analysts.
Three of the women who survived the attack told the Associated Press news agency that the assailants identified themselves as “jihadists” who said their attack was in retaliation for having volunteer defence fighters in their village.
“They said people from our town had recruited volunteers to fight them and ‘today, we’ve got you’,” one of the women said by phone from Pissila.
An official speaking on the condition on anonymity told the AFP news agency an investigation into the incident was opened.
“The attack occurred on Sunday evening, but it was on Monday morning that about 25 bodies were found, near the site of the attack,” said the official.
The fatalities were from the villages of Wintokuilga and Tang-kienga, close to Pissila, he said.
The Burkinabe government has not yet confirmed the killings but several regional officials told AP they were aware of the situation and were looking into the matter.
A humanitarian worker in the town of Kaya said the casualties were “internally displaced people who were returning home” when they were ambushed.
“We still don’t know the exact number of victims, because there are still people listed missing,” the aid worker said.