The bodies of 180 men suspected to be victims of extrajudicial killings have been found in graves in northern Burkina Faso, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
A majority of the bodies were found dumped along highways, under bridges, and in fields outside Djibo town. A few were discovered in the town between November and June, the rights group said, citing interviews with residents.
Residents told HRW that those buried between March and April were found blindfolded and had been shot.
HRW Sahel Director Corinne Dufka called on the Burkina Faso government to urgently “uncover who turned Djibo into a killing field.”
“Existing information points toward government security forces, so it’s critical to have impartial investigations, evidence properly gathered, and families informed about what happened to their loved ones,” Dufka said in the statement.
The rights group says government forces control the town, but added that none of the locals it interviewed had seen the killings and that HRW could not independently verify local claims that government forces were responsible.
The rights group said Burkina Faso Defense Minister Moumina Cherif Sy had promised to investigate the allegations when the organization reached out to the government with its findings.
The minister suggested the killings might have been carried out by armed Islamist groups who terrorized parts of the country during the relevant period.
In a letter to HRW, the minister said it was “sometimes difficult for these populations to differentiate between Armed Terrorist Groups and Defence and Security Forces,” adding that the terrorists have been “wearing the uniform or using the logistical means,” of the defense forces.
Extremists violence in Burkina Faso has displaced tens of thousands of people in recent years. The militants have wreaked havoc on communities, killing villagers and targeting army outposts in a conflict that has spread to neighboring Mali and Niger.
Clothes and physical features were used to identify the tribe to which the victims belonged, HRW said. The group urged authorities to work with the United Nations to exhume and return bodies to the victims’ families.