Villagers who escaped a jihadist massacre in northern Burkina Faso said Tuesday they had been left without any protection against the attackers after government forces pulled out of the area.
Over a period of hours on Saturday evening, armed men moved unhampered through the village of Seytenga, shooting, burning and looting, they said.
Seventy-nine people died, according to an upwardly revised toll issued on Tuesday as the Sahel state began three days of mourning.
It is the second bloodiest attack in the nearly seven-year-old history of the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso.
The campaign has claimed thousands of lives, forced nearly two million people to flee their homes and dealt a crippling economic blow to one of the world’s poorest countries.
Survivors who fled to Dori, the nearest large town to Seytenga, said the military had pulled out of the area on Friday, a day after a jihadist attack that had killed 11 gendarmes.
“The following day (on Friday), when the bodies were picked up, the security forces packed their bags and left,” said a survivor named Amadou.
“We raised the alarm, we asked for there to be at least a reinforcement to provide security for defenceless people.”
Two other survivors confirmed this account.
“On Friday, the gendarmerie, escorted by the army which had arrived to provide reinforcement, fell back to Dori,” said one.
“When the gendarmerie left after the first attack, people started to flee the town,” said another.
The bloodbath started on Saturday evening, a market day, the witnesses said.
“Armed men came and took position, surrounding the village and opening fire. They even opened doors to go inside homes and execute” people, said Amadou.
– ‘Stayed all night’ –
“They went from shop to shop, sometimes torching them,” one man said. “They opened fire on anyone who tried to run away. They stayed in the town all night.”
A woman named Fatimata, who had a baby girl in her arms, said she was desperate for news of her relatives.
“We are still looking for my brother. Was he able to escape into the countryside? We don’t know right now,” she said.
“They looted homes — they killed anyone they found, men, children. There are so many dead. It’s just awful,” she said.
The toll at Seytenga is surpassed only by an attack at Solhan in the northeast of the country last June that left 132 dead, according to an official toll. Local sources say 160 died.
Anger over the Soltan attack and a raid at Inata that killed 57 gendarmes five months later helped fuel a military coup in January.
A group of colonels ousted elected president Roch Marc Christian Kabore, facing mounting anger for his failure to roll back the insurgency.
The new strongman, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, named security his key priority.
But after a lull, attacks resumed.
Several hundred people have died in the past three months, underscoring the problems facing the country’s poorly-equipped army against a ruthless and highly mobile foe.