OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — At least 180 bodies were found in mass graves in northern Burkina Faso with evidence suggesting the government army was involved in large-scale executions turning the area into a “killing field,” Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The bodies of men were dumped in groups of up to 20 under bridges, in fields and in vacant lots, the rights group said in a new report. The killings took place between November last year and June and the majority of the dead were found by residents within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the government- controlled town of Djibo, in the country’s Sahel region.
This is the latest in a string of growing accusations of extrajudicial killings by Burkina Faso’s military, which is struggling to stem jihadist violence that’s spread across the country, internally displacing almost 1 million people. Last month Amnesty International documented gross human rights violations committed by the security forces between March and April, including forced disappearances and killings.
In May, 12 people who had been arrested as suspected extremists were found dead in cells in eastern Burkina Faso after being held overnight, according to a government statement at the time. A local rights group and civilians, say the government was responsible for the deaths.
“The growing number of allegations of extrajudicial killings by the army is deeply worrying, and the lack of progress on investigations suggests a lack of political will,” Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. The jihadists pose a genuine threat and have killed with brutal disregard for life, but killing suspects in the name of security is as unlawful as it is counterproductive, she said.
The report, based on 23 interviews, alleged that government security forces were responsible for the majority of the killings and that most of the victims were ethnic Fulani herders, who had been blindfolded, bound and shot. The country’s Fulani ethnic group, who are generally Muslim, have been increasingly targeted by the military and local defense militias for their alleged affiliation with the Islamist groups, say rights groups.
Djibo, where many Fulanis live, has been at the epicenter of the violence and has been blockaded for months as jihadists have put landmines in the roads leading to the town. Several locals told AP that it’s common to see bodies strewn along the road in the morning. They blame those deaths on the military, although their charges could not be verified.
The international community is urging Burkina Faso’s government to make sure that its troops uphold basic rights. In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. said the government must investigate the allegations and “honor the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens.”
The government didn’t respond to AP’s request for a comment but in a three-page letter to Human Rights Watch, the ministry of defense pledged to investigate the mass graves. It said the killings occurred during an uptick in attacks by armed Islamic extremists and suggested the killings could have been carried out by these groups who were using stolen army uniforms and equipment.