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'A dozen' Burkina Faso soldiers killed after jihadists kill 35 civilians

Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol in a village of Gorgadji in sahel area, Burkina Faso March 3, 2019
Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol in a village of Gorgadji in sahel area, Burkina Faso March 3, 2019 Luc Gnago, REUTERS

"Around a dozen" Burkina Faso soldiers were killed when a military patrol was ambushed overnight in Hallele in the country's volatile Soum province, a security source told AFP on Wednesday.

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The ambush comes a day after jihadists in Burkina Faso killed 35 civilians, almost all of them women, when they simultaneously attacked a town in the north and its military base in one of the deadliest assaults in nearly five years of jihadist violence in the west African country.

President Roch Marc Kabore has declared two days of national mourning in response to Tuesday's deadly attack on civilians.

The Tuesday morning raid was carried out by more than 200 jihadists on motorbikes and lasted several hours before they drove the militants back, a security source said. After several hours, armed forces in Soum backed by the air force repelled the militants and seized a large number of weapons and motorbikes, the army said in a statement.

"A large group of terrorists simultaneously attacked the military base and the civilian population in Arbinda," the army chief of staff said in a statement.

“As they fled, in a cowardly way, the terrorists killed 35 civilians of whom 31 were women,” the government said in separate statement. It said 80 militants and seven members of the security forces were killed in in this double attack, with 20 soldiers being injured, Communications minister and government spokesman Remis Dandjinou said.

Kabore praised the "bravery and commitment" of the defense and security forces in a tweet.

The incident followed an attack on a mining convoy in November which killed nearly 40 people – victims of an Islamist insurgency that has ignited ethnic tensions and rendered large parts of the country ungovernable this year.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attack, but jihadist violence in Burkina Faso has been blamed on militants linked to both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

Pope's prayers

There was worldwide condemnation of the attack, as well as expressions of support for Burkina Faso.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the Christmas Eve attack and offered his "deep condolences" to the families of the victims, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. "The Secretary-General conveys the solidarity of the United Nations to the government and people of Burkina Faso," he added, emphasising the UN's continued support for the Sahel region in their efforts to fight terrorism and violent extremism.

In his traditional 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".

In Brussels, the head of the European Council Charles Michel tweeted: "Inates in Niger yesterday, Arbinda in Burkina Faso today... Martyr towns, victims of a rampant terrorism that threatens us all. The European Union stands by Africa in its battle against terrorism."

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou also expressed his "solidarity" and, speaking "in the name of the Nigerien people" offered his "condolences for all civilian and military victims."

560,000 internally displaced

Leaders of the G5 Sahel nations held summit talks in Niger earlier this month, calling for closer cooperation and international support in the battle against the Islamist threat.

Militant violence has spread across the vast Sahel region, especially in Burkina Faso and Niger, having started when armed Islamists revolted in northern Mali in 2012.

The Sahel region of Africa lies to the south of the Sahara Desert and stretches across the breadth of the African continent.  There are 4,500 French troops deployed in the region as well as a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali to fight insurgents. 

The G5 group is made up of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, whose impoverished armies have the support of French forces as well as the UN in Mali.

In Burkina Faso, more than 700 people have been killed and around 560,000 internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

Attacks have targeted mostly the north and east of the country, though the capital Ouagadougou has been hit three times.

Prior to Tuesday's attack, Burkina security forces said they had killed around a hundred jihadists in several operations since November. 

An ambush on a convoy transporting employees of a Canadian mining company in November killed 37 people.

Attacks have intensified this year as the under-equipped, poorly trained Burkina Faso army struggles to contain the Islamist militancy.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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