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Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

An attack that reportedly killed more than 100 soldiers on an army base in Burkina Faso has snowballed into speculation about unrest in the security forces, in a country where the military has been in power since 2022.

The leader of the military junta has since appeared on state TV in an attempt to debunk the rumors.

Burkina Faso has been battling Islamist insurgents for several years and about half the country is outside government control.

The Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) group has said it was behind last Tuesday’s attack in the northern town of Mansila.

The following day, there was an explosion near the headquarters of the state television.

According to several reports, armed men attacked the military base, located near the border with Niger, on 11 June.

Around 100 soldiers were killed and many others were missing, reports say, adding that several hundred civilians fled Mansila for neighboring towns in search of safety.

Five days after the attack, JNIM, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, said it was behind the attack, and that dozens of soldiers were killed.

The group shared a video showing a large amount of weapons and ammunition that it says were captured during the assault.

There are also videos of JNIM fighters riding motorbikes and shooting relentlessly in a remote village of mud-walled buildings.

The BBC has not been able to verify the video.

The armed forces have since blockaded Mansila and it is not possible to enter the city without a military convoy.

Junta leader Capt Ibrahim Traoré broke his silence on the attack on Thursday, 10 days after it happened.

He said the military had launched an operation after the assault, and sent reinforcement troops.

A day after the Mansila attack, a rocket hit the parking area of state TV Radiodiffusion Télévision Burkinabé (RTB) in the capital, Ouagadougou.

On its Facebook page, RTB described the event as a “shooting incident” that resulted in “two minor injuries, quickly taken care of by the presidential health service”.

Even before the Mansila and RTB attacks, there was already speculation about internal tensions within the military.

Along with the public, soldiers had expressed frustration at the government’s failure to contain the security crisis after a series of high-profile attacks.

Like its counterparts in Mali and Niger, Burkina Faso’s junta came to power promising to end the jihadist insurgency.

But insecurity in Burkina Faso has increased dramatically since the army took power in 2022, kicking out French troops, saying they had not done enough to tackle the jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The junta has meanwhile deepened military ties with Russia.

Military sources told French broadcaster RFI that the 12 June state TV attack was linked to the army’s “internal situation” and that “things are not good”.

Jeune Afrique, another French outlet, reported that the rocket was fired from the nearby presidential palace by unidentified individuals while military leader Capt Traoré was chairing a cabinet meeting. Consequently, Capt Traoré’s security had to “exfiltrate” him, Jeune Afrique said.

But Capt Traoré denied reports of mutiny within the army.

“It’s absolutely not the case. We are here,” he said, in an address from outside the RTB office on Thursday.

He said that a rocket was launched into RTB’s courtyard by mistake by those who were guarding the television station. He said nobody died although some people were injured.

Local media outlets in Burkina Faso have downplayed the RTB incident and the Mansila attack, perhaps over fears of a crackdown.

The junta has suspended several local and international media outlets accused of bias in their coverage of military operations, jihadist attacks and alleged human rights abuses by security forces.

Major military setbacks or security failures are sensitive issues in Burkina Faso.

Capt Traoré’s predecessors, Lt Col Paul-Henri Damiba and Roch Marc Kaboré, were ousted in September and January 2022, respectively, for failing to effectively deal with militant attacks.

Capt Traoré has repeatedly expressed a determination to eradicate the militants since he took power. Under his watch, the army launched several counter-terrorism operations in the most volatile areas, using modern weapons from Russia, Turkey and China.

However, the security situation has continued to deteriorate, opening the junta leader to the same criticism he once leveled against his predecessors.

Capt Traoré has largely kept a low profile since the Mansila attack.

It took him three days to make his first public appearance. RTB broadcast footage of him giving blood as part of a donation drive.

During the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha on 16 June, a statement from the junta leader was read out on RTB. Even this showed caution on the part of Capt Traoré, who usually appears live on RTB on such occasions, though he has since spoken out on national TV.

Before this, the military denied reports of military discontent – and did not address the attacks themselves.

“For some time now, rumors on social networks have been reporting mood swings and mutinies in certain military barracks,” read a military press release published on Tuesday.

“This unfounded and misleading information is the work of ill-intentioned individuals and small groups, with nefarious designs.

“These allegations aim to sow doubt, to create psychosis in public opinion, and to demoralize the troops strongly engaged in the fight for the liberation of our people.”

In a rare open criticism, some social media users in the country accused Capt Traoré and his government of failing to address the security crisis, despite acquiring modern military equipment.

“The coward Ibrahim Capt Traoré is hiding,” Sagnon, a Facebook page with 11,000 followers, said, further expressing shock at the scale of the militant attack.

“Mansila, the pain is very deep. The least that can be done is to communicate, we need to know what happened,” said Idrissa Badini, a blogger with 7,100 followers on Facebook.

Another Facebook user, Henry Sebgo, said the lack of reaction showed the military rulers’ “lack of compassion”.

Others defended the junta and accused “jealous forces” of working to destabilize Burkina Faso and the Alliance of Sahel States – which also includes Mali and Niger.

Senator Kletus Official, another popular Facebook page, alleged that “enemies of the Alliance of Sahel States” were behind the rocket attack on RTB.

The two attacks came about a week after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Burkina Faso and announced plans to send more military instructors to the country.

Having cultivated very close relations with Burkina Faso and other Sahel countries in recent years, Russia is already reportedly taking steps to ensure Capt Traoré’s administration remains stable.

More Russian mercenaries were recently flown from Mali to “protect” the Burkinabè leader in the aftermath of the attack, according to reports.

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