Burkina Faso: Airstrike hit village 130km from the actual target

On January 30, around 17h30 local time, JNIM militants aboard a 4×4 vehicle and motorbikes, equipped with RPGs and machine guns attacked the army camp in Kompienbiga, located in the country’s east. The militants overran the military camp, took control of the site, and torched vehicles of substantial worth including ACMAT Bastion armored vehicles, Toyota Land Cruiser pickup trucks, and motorbikes. The defending soldiers composed of combined units of the 34th Interarms Regiment (RIA) in Fada N’Gourma and the 31st Commando Infantry Regiment (RIC) in Tenkodogo quickly abandoned their posts, some reportedly sought refuge at the gendarmerie while others fled toward the southern border, subsequently arrested on Togolese territory, to later be repatriated to Ouagadougou.

About one and a half hour after the armed assault on the army camp in Kompienbiga—an airstrike took place in the village of Zanta which is a part of Zourma, twenty-five kilometers from the Burkinabe-Ghanaian border. Villagers witnessed explosions, a man in a neighboring village testified about a helicopter hovering the area, but couldn’t identify if it was a helicopter of the army. Projectiles hit the ground, trees and fields, exploding and causing fires, although no casualties were recorded. The projectiles fired were 57mm rockets of the S-5 series (see images below), widely used for helicopter armament subsystems. The events in Zanta sparked wild speculations in the Burkinabe media, and a not very informed debate on social media. However, Burkina Faso currently has one operational attack helicopter of type Mi-24 (Mi-35) stationed in Ouagadougou, and a Super Tucano in Bobo-Dioulasso. Thus, it was likely the Mi-24 deployed to Zourma, apparently, in order to provide air support to the forces attacked in Kompienbiga and retaliate against the militants controlling the camp. The issue is that Zourma is situated 130km from the actual target site (see map attached), indicating that the air raid conducted was randomly executed, without any visual contact established or target identified. In fact, it strongly appears that the erroneous airstrike was conducted due to a geographical error, Kompienbiga and Zourma share the same coordinate numbers, albeit respectively in eastern and western direction on the longitude axis.

The Burkinabe government didn’t acknowledge any responsibility for the failed airstrike and the grave error committed. Instead, the recently appointed Minister of Security, Ousséni Compaoré, stated that “investigations are underway to determine the nature of the devices”. Militancy in Burkina Faso is spreading like a wildfire, attacks are occuring at an unprecedented scale and pace, weakening the government’s already-tenuous hold of several regions and provinces, at a time when Burkina Faso is ascending the throne of the G5 Sahel presidency.

Prior to the attack in Kompienbiga, militants overran another army camp in the country’s north, harboring the counter-terrorism forces of the Northern Security Forces Group (GFSN), the assault triggered the third French intervention since early October last year.

In the wake of repeated assaults against positions of the army, security forces, and the killing of fourteen civilians in a village on the border with Mali—GFSN forces launched a large-scale operation in the provinces of Loroum, Sourou, and Yatenga. The general staff of the armed forces issued a statement claiming to have “neutralized 146 terrorists” as the result of this operation. Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) West Africa director, Corinne Dufka stated that sources interviewed by HRW said that some of those killed were executed in front of their families. The number per se is unprecedented and draws attention to both the timing and purpose of this announcement in light of successive setbacks. Potentially an attempt to sway opinion of an increasingly discontent public. The events have also sparked polemics among Burkinabes, those skeptic about the claims by the army or criticizing reported abuses and executions are accused of supporting terrorism, or even named as terrorists. The use of Balzac’s famous quote “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” is frequent in the discourse, said to justify what some consider “collateral damage”, including abuses and summary executions.