Jihadi insurgents in Burkina Faso's Yatenga province killed 36 volunteer fighters and 17 soldiers, the country's army confirmed Tuesday. The massacre is among the worst strategic defeats since interim President Ibrahim Traore wrested power from the previous junta a year ago.
"This act of extreme cowardice will not go unpunished. Every effort is being made to disable the remaining terrorist elements on the run," the army said in a statement, adding that several dozen rebels already have been killed.
Since 2015, Burkina Faso's army has been fighting extremist groups in its desert north. Some of those groups hold ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Understaffed and at times outgunned, the impoverished West African nation has had to rely on a network of ragtag volunteers that watchdog groups have accused of killing civilians, including children.
The jihadi insurgents have killed thousands and displaced upward of 2 million people as they move closer to Ouagadougou, the nation's capital. Civilians under terrorist rule are barred from traveling and accessing vital goods and services.
Conflict analysts say that half of the country lives in lawlessness.
"This violence, coupled with the geographic spread of extremist activities effectively surrounding Ouagadougou, puts Burkina Faso more than ever at the brink of collapse," a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said.
Two military coups last year promised to restore order and national sovereignty, but the crisis continues to spiral. Since the first coup in January 2022, extremist killings have nearly tripled, according to the Africa Center report, when compared to the year and a half before the coup.
In late January, President Traore struck down an accord allowing the French military to battle insurgents on Burkina Faso's soil. Now, he may want to enlist Russia's support. Last week, he met with a Russian delegation to discuss potential military cooperation.
Some information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.