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U.S.-Trained Burkina Faso Military Executed 220 Civilians

Burkina Faso’s military summarily executed more than 220 civilians, including at least 56 children, in two villages in late February, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

“We saw the bloody corpses riddled with bullets. We were able to save a 2-year-old child whose mother was killed shielding him with her body,” a 19-year-old witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Intercept. “The attackers were soldiers from our own army. They arrived on motorbikes and in vehicles, and they were armed with Kalashnikovs and heavy weapons.”

“The attackers were soldiers from our own army. They arrived on motorbikes and in vehicles, and they were armed.”

The mass killings came as the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the West African Sahel crumbled, with U.S.-trained military officers launching a long string of coups, including in Burkina Faso itself. Despite the coups and massacres, the U.S. has not cut ties with Burkina Faso, and a contingent of U.S. personnel remain in-country to “engage” with the armed forces serving the ruling junta.

Burkinabè soldiers killed 44 people, including 20 children, in Nondin village, and 179 people, including 36 children and four pregnant women, in nearby Soro village in the north of the country on February 25, according to HRW. The mass killings are part of a long-running counterterrorism campaign aimed at civilians accused of collaborating with Islamist militants.

“The massacres in Nondin and Soro villages are just the latest mass killings of civilians by the Burkina Faso military in their counterinsurgency operations,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “The repeated failure of the Burkinabè authorities to prevent and investigate such atrocities underlines why international assistance is critical to support a credible investigation into abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The West African Sahel was once touted as an American foreign-policy success story, but persistent violence over the last decade intensified as the U.S. implemented its counterterror strategy.

Putsches by U.S.-linked military officers, prompted by spiking militant attacks, have brought with them seismic geopolitical changes. Niger, for example, the site of the most recent coup by U.S.-trained officers in the Sahel, severed its lon-gstanding ties with the American military and welcomed in Russian trainers.

“They Showed No Mercy”

The February massacres followed several attacks by Islamist militants which killed scores of soldiers and civilians, including an assault on a military base almost 15 miles from Nondin.

Witnesses in Nondin told HRW that a military convoy with over 100 Burkinabè soldiers arrived on motorbikes, pickup trucks, and armored cars about 30 minutes after a group of Islamist fighters on motorcycles passed near the village yelling “Allah Akbar!” The eyewitnesses said the soldiers went door to door, rounding up locals before gunning them down. Villagers said a similar sequence played out in Soro.

“Before the soldiers started shooting at us, they accused us of being complicit with the jihadists,” a 32-year-old survivor from Soro, who was shot in the leg, told HRW. “They showed no mercy. They shot at everything that moved, they killed men, women, and children alike,” said a 60-year-old farmer who witnessed the murders.

The Burkinabè Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests from The Intercept to speak with the defense attaché or other officials.

The United States has assisted Burkina Faso with counterterrorism aid since the 2000s, providing funds, weapons, equipment, and American advisers, as well as deploying commandos on low-profile combat missions.

In 2018 and 2019, alone, the U.S. pumped a total of $100 million in “security cooperation” funding into Burkina Faso, making it one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in West Africa. U.S.-trained Burkinabè military officers have also repeatedly overthrown their government, in 2014, 2015, and 2022.


Drone Strikes in Burkina Faso Killed Scores of Civilians

At the same time, militant Islamist violence skyrocketed. Across all of Africa, the State Department counted just 23 casualties from terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003, combined. Burkina Faso alone suffered 7,762 fatalities from militant Islamist attacks last year, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution. That represents an almost 34,000 percent spike.

In 2020, Simon Compaoré, who previously served as Burkina Faso’s interior minister and was then president of the ruling political party, admitted to me that the Burkinabè government was conducting targeted executions of terrorist suspects. “We’re doing this, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops,” he said.

The democratically elected government of that time was overthrown in 2022 by the U.S.-trained Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who himself was ousted months later by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré. The extrajudicial killings continued.

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by security forces,” reads the most recent U.S. State Department report on human rights in Burkina Faso, adding that “impunity for human rights abuses and corruption remained widespread.”

Earlier this year, The Intercept reported on three 2023 drone strikes by Burkina Faso’s government — targeting Islamist militants in crowded marketplaces and at a funeral — that killed at least 60 civilians and left dozens more injured.

U.S. Risking Complicity

The “Leahy laws” prohibit U.S. funding for foreign security forces implicated in gross violations of human rights. U.S. law also generally restricts countries from receiving military aid following military coups. The United States, however, has continued to provide training to Burkinabè forces, Gen. Michael Langley, the chief of Africa Command, or AFRICOM, told the House Armed Services Committee last year.

The U.S. provided millions of dollars in counterterrorism assistance to Burkina Faso in 2023, according to State Department data. Last month, a State Department press release touted the fact that the U.S. has given Burkina Faso “hundreds of millions of dollars in development and humanitarian assistance, as well as counterterrorism support to civilian security and law enforcement actors.”

Burkinabè soldiers also took part in Flintlock 2023, an annual exercise sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. (Past Flintlock attendees, including Damiba, have overthrown the government.) 

“The United States should stop all military cooperation with Burkina Faso, otherwise they risk becoming complicit in the abuses,” a civil society activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation, told The Intercept.

Last October, senior White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials told Traoré, now Burkinabè president, that working with Russia-linked Wagner Group mercenaries would irreparably damage his relationship with the U.S. In January, Russia’s Africa Corps — described by Russian officials as the successor to the Wagner Group following the death of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin — deployed troops to Burkina Faso to, according to their post on Telegram, protect Traoré and battle terrorists.

Even with the raft of atrocities, coups, and transgressions against the Russian red line, a small contingent of U.S. military personnel are nonetheless deployed to Burkina Faso to, according to AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan, “engage and interact” with the Burkinabè military and “keep lines of communication and dialogue open.”

On March 1, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called on the junta to conduct “complete investigations” of the massacres “with integrity and transparency and hold those responsible to account.” (The State Department failed to provide on-the-record responses to questions by The Intercept.)

The Burkinabè activist scoffed at the suggestion that the Burkinabè military could investigate itself and said that the junta would “erase” evidence of the massacres.

“The United States and the international community must demand concrete actions,” the activist told The Intercept. “Real repercussions are needed, such as sanctions against the perpetrators of the crimes, in order to deter them.”

Update: April 25, 2024
This story was republished after being removed following an inadvertent early publication.

The post U.S.-Trained Burkina Faso Military Executed 220 Civilians appeared first on The Intercept.

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