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Burkina Faso: Drone Strikes on Civilians Apparent War Crimes

Impartially Investigate Military’s Air Attacks; Compensate Victims, Families

Photograph taken by a witness after the attack on a market near Boulkessi, Mopti Region, Mali on November 18, 2023. © 2023 Private
  • ​​Three Burkina Faso military drone strikes that the government claimed targeted Islamist fighters killed civilians at two crowded markets and a funeral since August 2023.
  • The Burkina Faso military used one of the most accurate weapons in its arsenal to attack large groups of people, causing the loss of numerous civilian lives in violation of the laws of war.
  • The government should urgently and impartially investigate these apparent war crimes, hold those responsible to account, and provide adequate support for the victims and their families.

(Nairobi) – Three Burkina Faso military drone strikes that the government claimed targeted Islamist fighters killed at least 60 civilians and injured scores more at two crowded markets and a packed funeral in Burkina Faso and Mali between August and November 2023, Human Rights Watch said today.

The drone strikes violated laws-of-war prohibitions against attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets and were apparent war crimes. The Burkinabè government should promptly ensure independent, impartial, and transparent inquiries into these attacks, appropriately prosecute those responsible, and adequately compensate victims and their families.

“The Burkina Faso military used one of the most accurate weapons in its arsenal to attack large groups of people, causing the loss of numerous civilian lives in violation of the laws of war,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Burkinabè government should urgently and impartially investigate these apparent war crimes, hold those responsible to account, and provide adequate support for the victims and their families.”

From September to November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 people by telephone and in person, including 23 witnesses to the strikes, and 7 members of domestic and international non-governmental organizations. Human Rights Watch also analyzed 11 photographs and a video sent directly to researchers by witnesses that show injured people and the aftermath of the strikes, and 3 videos posted online that show the drone attacks as well as satellite imagery of the three locations. On December 20, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Burkinabè justice minister, sharing its findings and requesting responses to specific questions. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response.

The Burkinabè military carried out the attacks with Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which were acquired in 2022. These remotely piloted aerial combat vehicles can surveil, accurately target, and deliver up to four MAM-L laser-guided bombs. Human Rights Watch documented casualties and damage consistent with the blast and fragmentation effects created by using these guided munitions in concentrations of people.

Government-controlled media said that all three attacks killed Islamist fighters and made no reference to civilian casualties.

Location of the three attacks in Burkina Faso and Mali documented by Human Rights Watch. Data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Graphic © 2024 Human Rights Watch

On August 3, Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), Burkina Faso’s government-run national television network, reported a successful air operation “based on intelligence” against a group of Islamist fighters who were “preparing large-scale attacks” in Bouro, Sahel region, and showed a video of a guided munition striking dozens of people and animals in a glade. Based on this video, Human Rights Watch geolocated the attack site as approximately 135 meters from the northern edge of Bouro village.

Witnesses said that the attack hit Bouro’s weekly Thursday market. Human Rights Watch reviewed a satellite image taken on a Thursday five months earlier, on March 2, showing people and animals gathered at that same location. Local residents said that at least 28 men were killed and many wounded.

Witnesses said that the Al-Qaeda linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM) controlled Bouro and surrounding areas. Three survivors said four motorbikes ridden by “jihadis,” or Islamist fighters, entered the market at the moment of the strike, when hundreds of civilians packed the market. In the video, seconds before the attack, three motorbikes can be seen moving toward the attack site 30 meters west. The riders generally match the descriptions that survivors provided.

“The market was full of civilians when the drone hit,” a 25-year-old man said. “People from all over the area come to the market to buy and sell animals.”

On September 24, RTB aired a video from a Burkinabè military drone of an attack on an unidentified village in the North region during a report on military operations against Islamist armed groups. A journalist commenting on the video footage said that “aerial vectors” detected 18 motorbikes coming from the Mali border and heading toward Koumbri and “successfully hit” them as they “stopped in a village.”

Bellingcat, an independent investigative collective of open-source researchers, used the video to geolocate the attack site as the village of Bidi. The video shows men riding at least six motorbikes along an unpaved road. The video then cuts to a close-up of the compound approximately 45 meters away. At least two men are at the entrance of the compound just before the strike, and dozens flee after the attack. It is not clear from the video how much time elapsed between the men riding motorbikes and the strike on the compound.

The RTB report is contrary to the accounts of people interviewed, who said that about 100 people were attending the funeral for a local woman and that there were no Islamist fighters at the compound at the time. Survivors said that 24 men and a boy were killed, and 17 were injured, all civilians. JNIM forces have besieged Bidi since 2021.

“[T]hat day we were just attending a funeral and we saw no fighters around,” said a 45-year-old witness. “The strike was just a terrible mistake.”

On November 18, a Burkinabè military drone hit a crowded market across the border in Mali near the town of Boulkessi, killing at least seven men and injuring at least five others. Witnesses said that several armed JNIM fighters were at the market, but that “almost all those there [at the time of the strike] were civilians.”

Survivors of the three strikes described horrific scenes.The bodies were blackened and charred,” said a 42-year-old survivor of the Bidi attack. “We struggled with the identifications: the bodies were shredded.” A man who lost his 32-year-old brother in the strike in Bouro said: “His body was destroyed. His stomach was completely gone. I had to put the pieces of the body in a plastic bag to carry them away for burial.” A 30-year-old man who was injured in the strike in Mali said: “The shrapnel hit me in the stomach. I almost died because my intestines were going to come out. … I grabbed the injured part, I crawled … to get away from the area.”

The laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Burkina Faso prohibit attacks that target civilians and civilian objects, that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, or that are expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian property that is disproportionate to any anticipated military advantage. Indiscriminate attacks include attacks that are not directed at a specific military target or use a method or means of combat whose effects cannot be limited as required.

Violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent, that is deliberately or recklessly, are war crimes. The use of highly accurate weapons such as the Bayraktar TB2 drones with laser-guided bombs strongly suggests that the markets and funeral were the intended targets.

“The Burkina Faso military repeatedly carried out drone strikes in crowded areas with little or no concern for civilian harm,” Allegrozzi said. “Governments transferring weapons to Burkina Faso that the military uses with flagrant disregard for civilian life risk being complicit in war crimes.”

For detailed accounts of the abuses and other details, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

The Conflict in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso forces have been fighting an insurgency by the JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara since the armed groups crossed into the country from Mali in 2016. The two armed groups control large swathes of the territory, attacking civilians as well as security forces. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, violence linked to this conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 7,600 people in over 2,000 incidents in 2023 alone. The violence has forced 2.1 million people from their homes and led to the shutdown of over 6,100 schools since 2021. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US Defense Department research arm, violence and instability have increased since the two military coups, in January and September 2022.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious abuses by the Burkinabè security forces and pro-government militias during its counterinsurgency operations including unlawful killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. In August 2022, media reported that Burkina Faso's army acknowledged killing civilians during a counterterrorism operation near the village of Pognoa, Est region, including 37 civilians in what local media reported to be a drone strike.

Islamist armed groups have also committed serious violations of the laws of war amounting to war crimes, including summary executions, kidnapping, and pillaging. They have besieged at least 46 locations across Burkina Faso, increasing starvation and illness among civilians and displaced people by blocking necessities such as food and humanitarian aid.

Bouro, Sahel Region, August 3

On August 3, a Burkinabè drone strike on a crowded market in Bouro, Sahel region, killed at least 28 men and wounded many others.

Witnesses said they saw a white drone fly overhead twice at about 9 a.m., then drop at least one bomb that hit the market.

A 56-year-old man who lost a brother in the strike said:

The strike hit our weekly market. Every week we go there to buy food for us and our cattle and to sell our animals. The market is located on the outskirts of the village, it always takes place outside. It is attended by many people, also coming from Mali. … The drone was white and flew over us two times from east to west and the third time it hit us. All we heard was fiuuuuu…boom!… The sound of the bomb dropping.

Witnesses said that there was a loud explosion followed by dark, thick smoke.

“It was hard to breathe,” said a 25-year-old man. “I fell unconscious. … My parents poured water on me, and I woke up coughing and I coughed for some time, and I had fever.”

Witnesses said that the injured were rescued by their relatives and treated by “country nurses,” who are members of the JNIM or collaborate with them. They also said that after the strike a group of Islamist fighters rushed to the area to organize the rescue efforts.

“I saw many injured,” said a 38-year-old man. “Some had very serious injuries, like their bodies were shattered, as if they had been cut with a knife or a blade. … Because there is no hospital or health center in Bouro, they were treated by the country nurses who usually treat the jihadists. … [A]nd the jihadists were also there to coordinate.”

Human Rights Watch obtained a list compiled by survivors and confirmed by two local authorities with the names of the 28 men killed, ages 18 to 62. However, the survivors said that they believe the death toll was much higher. “There were hundreds of people at the market at the time of the strike,” said a 45-year-old man. “We counted 70 dead, but we only identified 28 of them. The other bodies were unrecognizable.”

Witnesses said bodies were scattered across the market area, many torn into pieces, shattered, and burned. A 25-year-old man said:

I lost my cousin, a father of 10 children. … He was seriously injured in the neck and in the abdomen ... and lost a lot of blood. His body was torn apart. We buried him the next day. All the burials took place the day after the strike. … [S]ome bodies could not even be taken because they were torn into pieces or totally burned. … The burials took place in different ways and places because people feared another strike, so they did not want to regroup again.

Human Rights Watch analyzed two videos from Bouro that, according to the person who took them, were filmed two months after the strike. The videos show hundreds of bones strewn across the site. Human Rights Watch consulted with the Independent Forensic Experts Group to determine whether the remains were human but due to the image quality and type of remains captured in the video was unable to determine if the bones were from human or other mammal origins. Based on these videos and the drone footage shown on RTB, Human Rights Watch matched the trees, roads and burn scar from the attack with satellite imagery and geolocated the attack site to be approximately 100 meters beyond the northern edge of Bouro, which is where residents said the Thursday market was located. A satellite image from March 2, a Thursday, five months before the attack, shows people and animals gathered in the same location.

Left, screenshot of a video from a Burkinabè military drone on August 3, 2023, taken from Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina’s YouTube channel. It shows a moment before a guided munition struck dozens of people and animals in Bouro village. © Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina. Right, satellite imagery taken on September 1, 2023 shows a burn scar in the same location. Image © 2024 Airbus. Source Google Earth. Analysis and Graphics © 2024 Human Rights Watch

Survivors said that they were frustrated with the Burkinabè security forces and other authorities and that they did not file a complaint because of fear of reprisals.

One survivor said:

No family has filed a complaint, where are you going to file a complaint? There is no administrative authority here … and our area is considered by the authorities as a jihadist zone. … We're even afraid to go to the hospital and say we have been injured by a drone.

Another said:

The Islamists control our area, they control everything. There is no authority here. … After the strike no authority came to visit us. They consider us terrorists. … More and more, we lose hope of seeing the state coming back [here]. With such an abuse, our disappointment is complete. … If they had targeted terrorists, we could understand, but they targeted a crowded market with many civilians.

Bidi, North Region, September 21

A Burkinabè military airstrike hit a private compound where at least 100 people were attending a funeral for a woman in Dabéré, a neighborhood of Bidi village, Nord region, on September 21 at about 9 a.m. A drone dropped at least one munition on the compound, killing at least 24 men and a boy, and wounding 17 men, 10 witnesses said.

Witnesses described a white drone flying over their heads. A sudden explosion and blast collapsed a tent where several dozen people were sitting and praying and destroyed a nearby home. A Human Rights Watch analysis of a video of the attack showed shadows that corroborate the time frame identified by witnesses.

Left, two screenshots taken from a video posted on September 24, 2023 to Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina’s YouTube channel. It shows the activities before the strike on the compound. © Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina. Right, a satellite image shows the approximate distance between the motorbikes and the compound. Satellite image: © Maxar Technologies. Source Google Earth. Analysis and Graphics © 2024 Human Rights Watch

A 54-year-old farmer who witnessed the strike said:

[The drone] was white and made some slight noise. I was approaching the funeral site when I heard the explosion. … It hit the tent where the old and wise men were sitting and praying for the old woman who died. The explosion was so strong and loud that the ground trembled and I fell. I saw a lot of black smoke … and smelled something like gunpowder. It was chaotic. People were screaming and running. Everyone was looking for his relatives and friends or fleeing. I saw many bodies on the ground, scattered, some torn into pieces… parts of bodies, like organs. It was horrible.

Other witnesses also said the bodies of those killed were torn to bits and almost unrecognizable. “The bodies were black, burned, many destroyed, with only pieces left,” a 46-year-old man said. “It was a horrific scene.”

A 46-year-old man who was injured in the strike said:

There were over 100 people gathered for the funeral. They came from all of Bidi’s neighborhoods. Then the strike hit, and we all panicked. People ran, screamed, tried to rescue their injured relatives. The explosion was very strong. It targeted the tent. All those under the tent died except one, who was badly injured. Three walls of a fence came down and a house was also partially destroyed. I was injured in the foot, my brother in the chest and ribs. … I was taken to the University Health Center [Centre Hospitalier Universitaire] in Ouahigouya. Other injured were taken to Koro

Witnesses said that relatives took most of the injured on motorbikes to health facilities in Ouahigouya, 35 kilometers away, and Koro, 45 kilometers away. They also said that some hours after the attack, government soldiers arrived with a helicopter to evacuate some of the remaining wounded.

Human Rights Watch obtained a list compiled by survivors and Bidi residents with the names of the 25 people killed, ages 13 to 97, and the 17 injured, ages 42 to 80.

A witness said there were no women among the dead and injured “because they were staying on the other side of the compound. … According to our traditions, women and men do not mix up during funerals.”

Survivors and residents said the JNIM have besieged Bidi for at least two years and that Islamist fighters often came to the village. But, they said, no JNIM fighters were inside the compound during the funeral.

A 53-year-old man said:

They [JNIM] often come [to the village]. They preach and try to recruit people. They impose their rules and harass us. They want all women to be veiled and if they find a woman without the veil, they beat her or they beat her husband. They order all men to cut their pants short and grow their beards. But the day of the strike, no armed man was present at the funeral. I saw none.

Witnesses said that most of the families buried the bodies of their loved ones in their courtyards, out of fear of a new strike.

A 42-year-old man said:

We were afraid of going to the cemetery and digging the graves there. We wanted to avoid large gatherings because we thought another strike could hit us. I helped dig seven graves in Dabéré neighborhood. Most of the victims were from this neighborhood. … No authority came to attend the burials. … We are abandoned by the state. No assistance. No compassion. We didn’t see any official statement [on what happened].

Survivors and families of the victims said that they did not file a complaint after the incident out of fear of reprisals by the authorities and because of the absence of any authority in Bidi.

A survivor said:

In Bidi, people no longer feel they belong to a state. The village has been under siege for a long time, there are terrorists walking around, pressuring us, the army is not here. … There is no gendarmerie post, no police station, no presence of any state authority. This strike is not a slip-up. It has already happened that the security forces have committed crimes. This is not the first time. It's not a blunder, it's systematic. It is deplorable what has happened in our village.

Boulkessi, Mopti Region, Mali, November 18

On November 18 at around 10 a.m., a Burkinabè drone strike hit a crowded market about 10 kilometers from a Malian army camp in Boulkessi, Mopti region, Mali, near the Burkina Faso-Mali border, seven witnesses said. A drone dropped three munitions killing at least seven men and wounding at least another five.

That evening, RTB reported that the Burkinabè military carried out airstrikes during the day to stop a major attack being planned by “terrorists.” It broadcast a video of what it described as three drone strikes in a location in the Sahel region “exactly on the border,” hitting hundreds of people in what an RTB journalist described as a “logistics base” for Islamist fighters. The beginning of the video shows at least three munitions being dropped on a crowded market. Human Rights Watch used this video and accounts from witnesses to locate the market in Mali. Satellite imagery captured on November 18 at 9:49 a.m. local time shows a large smoke plume coming from the market. Satellite imagery taken on February 3, 2023, shows the presence of a market at the same location.

Satellite image recorded at 9:49 a.m. local time on November 18, 2023, shows smoke plumes coming from a market near Boulkessi village, Mopti Region, Mali.  Twenty-four hours later, on November 19, 2023, burn scars are visible in the same location. Images

Satellite image recorded at 9:49 a.m. local time on November 18, 2023, shows smoke plumes coming from a market near Boulkessi village, Mopti Region, Mali. Twenty-four hours later, on November 19, 2023, burn scars are visible in the same location. Images © 2024 Planet Labs PBC. Analysis and Graphics © 2024 Human Rights Watch

Four photographs taken by a survivor in the aftermath and shared directly with Human Rights Watch show scorched earth, at least one burned vehicle, and large white food sacks and produce strewn across the ground. High-resolution satellite imagery from January 11, 2024, shows several large burn marks on the market and most of the structures removed.

Infrared satellite imagery from January 11, 2024, shows a destroyed market located 9 kilometers north of Boulkessi, a village in Mali, as a result of the attack of November 18, 2023. On infrared images, the vegetation appears in red and the burned areas are darker than the surrounding area. Image © 2024 Planet Labs PBC. Analysis and Graphics © 2024 Human Rights Watch

Witnesses said that there were a number of JNIM fighters at the crowded market at the time of the strike.

A 30-year-old man said:

I left Yangassadiou [Mopti region, Mali] with three colleagues. … We sell our millet to everyone, even to jihadists. We are traders, we make a living from trade, so whoever comes we will sell our millet to them. … There were armed men around. I saw at least one pickup truck with three armed fighters on board that was driving through the market before the strike. These armed men are from the JNIM. They control the area.

A Malian government official in Mondoro, Mopti region, where some of the injured were evacuated, said that following the strike, he reached out to Malian soldiers from the local army base to ask what happened at the market. He said:

I told them that the injured told me that there was an airstrike at the market and that civilians were killed and wounded. The soldiers said that they had nothing to do with that airstrike, that it was the work of the Burkinabè.

A 21-year-old man who was injured in the strike said:

The market was beginning to fill up with lots of people, only men, mostly civilians. Women are not allowed to go to the market because of the Islamic law imposed by the jihadists. At around 10 a.m., I didn't see anything coming but a bomb that fell on us like an arrow, then another bomb, and a third one … and then all I saw was black smoke. I was wounded in the arm by shrapnel. I ran out of the area. People were running in all directions. … I helped my comrades get out of the market despite my injury. … [U]nfortunately, one of us died along the way – he had been wounded in the stomach.

Human Rights Watch obtained a list compiled by survivors with the names of seven people ages 20 to 40 killed in the strike, and five injured.

A 69-year-old man from Kobou village who lost his 20-year-old and 40-year-old sons in the strike said:

My sons had gone to the market to sell their products. They were traders, civilians, not fighters. I was in the village when I heard the first explosion at around 10 a.m. The village is 29 kilometers from the market. I heard three successive detonations. At around noon, I saw an ethnic Dogon [an ethnic group in that region] man on a motorcycle who had just left the market and I asked him what happened. He replied…, “The market has been bombed.” I immediately asked him to take me there. When I got there, I saw several corpses on the ground with very deep, sharp wounds… shredded bodies. I also saw pieces of bodies here and there. I identified the bodies of my two children and buried them on the spot, not far from the market.

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