By Sophie Louet
PARIS (Reuters) – France carried out air strikes in northern Burkina Faso after Islamist militants attacked a police unit at a local gold mine, the latest incident to underscore rising insurgency in the West African region.
The arid Sahel region is suffering a spike in violence by militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, highlighting the difficulty international partners face in restoring regional stability.
The Burkinabe Ministry of Security said one gendarme was killed and another wounded in an attack on police on Wednesday at the Inata gold mine in the northern Soum region carried out by a large group of heavily armed terrorists.
France’s army said in statement that at the request of the local authorities its forces intervened to hunt down the attackers. It dispatched a Reaper drone and two Mirage fighter jets from a base in neighbouring Niger on Wednesday night.
“The drone detected a column of several motorcycles leaving the area in the direction of the north. After observing the group and establishing its terrorist nature, both Mirage planes carried out strikes,” the statement said.
An army spokesman said some 15 motorcycles had been targeted, but it was too early to say how many fighters had been killed.
France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamist militants who had occupied the north and has since kept about 4,500 troops in the region as part of counter-terrorism operations.
French officials acknowledge Paris is likely to remain in the zone for the next decade.
No group claimed Wednesday’s attack in Burkina Faso, but the province of Soum is known to be an area where Ansarul Islam, a jihadi Salafist group, operates.
The northern region of Burkina Faso, bordering Mali and Niger, has been the theatre of many jihadist attacks since 2015.
“It is a threat that could potentially extend across the region,” said a French army spokesman. “We are here to help when necessary.”
Six Burkinabe soldiers were also killed on Thursday morning when their vehicle hit a landmine in the eastern province of Komondjari, an army spokesman said.
Led by France, Western powers have provided funding to a regional force made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to combat jihadists.
But the so-called G5 force has been hobbled by delays in disbursing the money and poor coordination between the five countries while insecurity has escalated in the border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
(Additional reporting by Thiam Ndiaga in Ouagadougou; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Mark Heinrich)