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Burkina Faso forces, jihadists execute dozens of civilians: HRW

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Burkina Faso security forces have summarily executed more than 115 civilians since mid-last year during operations against Islamist militants who themselves have killed over a third of that number, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

Burkina Faso has seen a sharp rise in Islamist attacks in the past three months, as militant groups seek to increase their influence across the Sahel.

A Burkinabe government spokesman declined to comment, but said authorities would issue a statement shortly. None of the multiple jihadist groups operating in Burkina Faso could be reached for comment.

HRW documented “the execution by Burkinabe security forces of over 115 men accused of supporting or harboring the armed Islamists”, as well as 42 killings carried out by jihadists of suspected government collaborators.

All the violence occurred near the northern borders with Mali and Niger, between April 2018 and January 2019.

“Scores of people have been murdered,” Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch, said. “Villagers are living in fear as both armed Islamists and government forces have demonstrated utter disregard for human life.”

Burkina Faso has become the latest focal point for a determined regional jihadi campaign, seven years after well-armed Islamists took over northern Mali in 2012, prompting the French to intervene the following year to push them back.

However, any evidence of reprisals would present an uncomfortable dilemma for Western allies such as France and the United States: backing security forces in countries such as Burkina Faso is key to containing the Islamist threat, but that support is meant to be conditional on respect for human rights.

Burkina declared a state of emergency in several provinces in December following an attack by an al Qaeda-linked group. The state of emergency was extended by six months in January after an dozens died in ethnic violence triggered by the suspected jihadist killing of a traditional ruler.

Thousands of people have fled their homes as a result of militant attacks and reprisals by Burkinabe forces.

According to the HRW report, in the village of Gasseliki, about 230 km north of the capital Ouagadougou, jihadists killed 12 people.

“They kicked the door in, went room to room and found us hiding,” the report quoted a witness as saying. Reprisals by security forces were mostly carried out by a detachment of about 100 gendarmes, or military police, based in the town of Arbinda, since late August, it said.

Most were from the Fulani ethnic group, whom the jihadists have targeted heavily for recruitment.

Earlier this month, Burkina Faso acknowledged accusations of abuse, saying the army was committed to human rights and that it “investigations are ongoing into the facts”.

Reporting by Thiam Ndiaga; Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Tim Cocks and Alison Williams