Eleven soldiers were killed in Burkina Faso on Thursday as the country mourned the victims of attacks by suspected jihadis on Christmas Eve in which 35 civilians died, most of them women.
Tuesday’s attack in which militants in Soum province, near the border with Mali, killed 35 civilians and seven soldiers was the worst assault on the country in five years. Burkina authorities said 80 of the militants died in what started out as an assault on a military base.
Thursday’s assault on the military happened around 60km from the first attack, according to Al Jazeera. All Christmas celebrations had been cancelled in the country of 20m people, about a fifth of whom are Christians.
The spate of attacks highlights the growing threat of radical Islamist groups in the Sahel region as unrest spreads out from Mali, where jihadis briefly took over the north of the country in 2013 until French forces drove them out.
Since then there have been dozens of incidents across the Sahel and beyond, such as the 2016 shootings at Ivory Coast’s Grand Bassam tourist resort in which 19 civilians died. There were also deadly attacks on high-profile targets in Ouagadougou, the Burkina capital, in 2016 and 2018.
The latest incidents come at a time when Washington’s resolve to commit troops to the region is under question and when France is recalibrating its relations with its former colonies.
Experts say that the wave of terrorist attacks across the Sahel in recent years are characterised by several overlapping factors. Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and Isis have taken hold in some regions and militants who went to fight in Iraq and Syria have returned to wage war at home.
In some places, these groups have become involved in unrelated disputes between pastoralists pouring out of Libya, often armed with weapons, and local sedentary farmers. The battle for land resources has been exacerbated by high birth rates and desertification.
In December, leaders of the so-called G5 group of Sahel nations called for greater co-operation in fighting the militant threat. They also urged greater international help at a time when the US is reviewing its commitment to what president Donald Trump has called “endless wars”, including that in the Sahel. That could include the scaling back of a recently built US drone base in Niger.
President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Ivory Coast and Niger in the run-up to Christmas, reconfirmed France’s commitment to fighting the jihadi threat. In November 13 French soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Mali, the worst single-day loss of life for the French military since the 1980s.
About 4,500 French troops are stationed in the region as part of Operation Barkhane. Last week the French military said it had killed 33 militants during an operation in Mali.
During his visit to Ivory Coast, Mr Macron announced that France had agreed to the loosening of French supervision of the CFA franc, which will be renamed the eco. Although not directly related, the move led some to question Paris’s long-term commitment to a region that is bound to France by colonial history.