Gunmen killed four worshippers and a pastor in the first jihadist attack on a church in Burkina Faso, security and local sources said Monday, in the latest violence to rock the formerly peaceful west African nation.
Sunday’s raid took place in the small northern town of Silgadji near Djibo, the capital of Soum province.
“Unidentified armed individuals have attacked the Protestant church in Silgadji, killing four members of the congregation and the main pastor,” a security source told AFP.
“At least two other people are missing,” the source added.
It was the first attack on a church since jihadist violence erupted in Burkina Faso in 2015.
Former colonial ruler France has deployed some 4,500 troops in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in a mission codenamed Barkhane to help local forces try to flush out jihadist groups.
“The attack happened around 1:00 pm, just as the faithful were leaving the church at the end of the service,” a member of the church who did not want to be identified told AFP.
“The attackers were on motorbikes. They fired in the air before aiming at the members of the congregation,” the witness added.
Burkina Faso has suffered from increasingly frequent and deadly attacks attributed to a number of jihadist groups, including the Ansarul Islam group, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The raids began in 2015 in the north before targetting the capital Ouagadougou and other regions, notably in the the east.
A total of 350 people have been killed since 2015 — mainly in hit-and-run raids — according to an AFP tally.
The jihadist groups regularly target both Muslim and Christian clerics, mainly in the north.
In February, a Spanish Catholic priest, Father Cesar Fernandez, was killed in a raid attributed to jihadists in Nohao in the centre of the country. He was returning from the adjoining country of Togo when it happened.
Fernandez, 72, had been working in Africa since 1982 for the Salesians of Don Bosco order.
– ‘Dramatic deterioration’ –
In March, gunmen abducted Catholic priest Father Joel Yougbare from Botogui, near Djibo, in the north. The Catholic Church has not yet confirmed reports that his body has since been found.
Several imams have also been killed in the north.
According to security sources, the jihadists do not consider these Muslim clerics sufficiently radical and sometimes accuse them of having collaborated with the authorities.
But religious leaders are not the only people targeted by the extremists. On Friday, jihadists attacked a village school in Maitaougou, in the eastern province of Koulpelogo, killing five teachers and a municipal worker.
Human Right Watch’s Sahel director Corinne Dufka recently said that the surge in jihadist violence and a government crackdown had “forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee since early 2019.
“Scores of people have been murdered in what amounts to a dramatic deterioration in the rights situation in northern Burkina Faso,” she said last month.
“Villagers are living in fear as both armed Islamists and government forces have demonstrated utter disregard for human life.”
Around 4.3 million people have been driven from their homes in the worsening violence that has engulfed the entire Sahel region, including one million over the past year, according to UN humanitarian officials.