A summit of five nations that have joined forces to fight jihadism in the Sahel got under way on Tuesday, a day after a fresh terror attack in the region claimed 14 lives.
Leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — gathered in the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou.
Their one-day meeting aims at beefing up coordination in the battle against jihadists who have killed hundreds of civilians and inflicted crippling economic damage.
On the eve of the summit, 14 civilians were killed by insurgents in a pre-dawn attack at Kain in northern Burkina Faso near the Mali border, the military said.
It said it carried out retaliatory air strikes and land operations in three northern provinces, “neutralising” 146 fighters, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.
The jihadist attack was one of the most serious recorded in the country. The Burkinabe army said it suffered “light casualties” but “no loss of life” during the retaliations, adding that security operations were continuing in the affected areas.
Both civilians and security forces in Burkina Faso have paid a heavy price for jihadist attacks in recent years, with the death toll now standing at nearly 300 since 2015.
There were three major attacks in the north of Burkina Faso alone last month: on January 10, 12 civilians were killed in the village of Gasseliki; on January 27, 10 civilians were killed in an attack on Sikire; and on January 28, four soldiers died in a massive jihadist attack in Nassoumbou.
Attacks have also affected the east, and to a lesser extent, the west of the country.
Ouagadougou has been hit three times since 2016, with nearly 60 lives lost. The last attack, in March 2018, hit the army headquarters in the city centre.
The Kain attack came just before the G5 summit of the five Sahel countries. The group have put together a military force to try to stem the jihadist attacks throughout the region, but the force is fighting an uphill battle.
Burkina Faso police are also struggling to combat the increasingly frequent and deadly jihadist attacks. Since 1 January, a state of emergency has been declared in 14 out of 45 provinces, giving additional powers to security forces.
“Burkina Faso, the host of this summit, which used to be among the most peaceful countries in the world… is today the victim of attacks by terrorists with regressive aims,” said former Burundian president Pierre Buyoya, the African Union’s representative at the summit.
“The African Union expresses its solidarity and compassion for the Burkinabe government and people and urges them to mobilise to stand together against the destabilising actions of the terrorist groups. It encourages them to close off any gaps in which the enemy can flourish.”
Last month, Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kabore carried out a major reshuffle of the country’s security apparatus, sacking the chief of the armed forces and replaces the ministers for defence and security.
Tight security was in place on Tuesday. A key highway linking the airport and the conference venue was closed off to non-summit traffic, and armed troops were deployed at regular intervals.
Officials at the summit acknowledged the challenges the alliance faces as Niger prepares to cede its current role as president.
Burkina Faso’s Minister of National Defense Cherrif Sy said 2018 had been “particularly difficult” due to terror groups’ evolving “modes of action”.
The Islamist revolt in the Sahel took off after chaos engulfed Libya in 2011. Jihadist attacks erupted in northern Mali as Boko Haram arose in northern Nigeria.
As the toll spiked, a French-backed scheme was launched in 2015 with the goal of deploying a 5,000-man joint force among five nations in the front line.
But lack of funding and training, as well as poor equipment, have greatly undermined the initiative, and last June the force’s headquarters in Mali were hit in a devastating suicide attack claimed by an al-Qaeda-linked group.
The G5’s problems have given rise to long periods of apparent inactivity, although on Sunday, its commander General Hanena Ould Sidi, a Mauritanian, said the force had carried out three operations since January 15. He gave no further details.
At the end of February, Burkina Faso will host the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, one of the biggest African film festivals, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.