Burkina Faso's neighbours brace as violence spreads

No one was killed when gunmen on motorcycles stormed a police station in Burkina Faso's restless north last week - but only because the outnumbered officers quickly fled the scene, allowing an unknown number of detained terror suspects to escape.

The attack in the heart of Djibo on Thursday night came just hours after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived in the capital Ouagadougou, his second visit this year to address deteriorating security in the country since a deadly assault on the French embassy last March.

French officials say the raid was a "catastrophe", signalling a growing boldness of jihadist fighters in the north of the former French colony, while also broadcasting the government's apparent inability to protect its citizens.

"Clearly Burkina Faso is now the main worry" among the G5 Sahel nations trying to fend off jihadism and lawlessness in five nations on the Sahara's southern rim since 2015, a top French diplomatic source said, warning of a "very long" anti-terrorist fight.

Already around 220 schools have been closed in the north and up to 40 000 people have been driven from their homes toward Djibo, a town that is home to one of the biggest cattle markets in West Africa.

In September, a spate of near-daily roadside bomb attacks erupted along the eastern border with Niger, a sparsely populated area of national parks with a history of smuggling activities.

Although attacks in the area have subsided in recent weeks, NGOs have told their workers to remain in larger cities for fear of landmines.

So far no group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which officials say could be the work of Ansarul Islam - normally based in the north - or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, the group behind a deadly ambush on US soldiers in western Niger in October 2017.

But the violence has prompted two of Burkina Faso's neighbours to the south, Togo and Benin, to start moving troops to their northern borders, according to a French diplomatic source.

And on the eve of Le Drian's visit, defence and foreign ministers from Togo, Benin and Niger met their Burkinabe counterparts in Ouagadougou to discuss security strategy and cooperation - for the first time in recent memory.

 'Can't do anything' 

Adding to the unease, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore has refused to address the surge in attacks, declining to appear alongside Le Drian for a press briefing after their meeting last week.

Few people believe his claim that partisans of former president Blaise Compaore are at work, trying to destabilise his government.

"People are scared," said a local journalist in Ouagadougou who asked not to be quoted by name, calling Kabore's silence "an admission of weakness".

"He can't do anything - he doesn't have the resources," the senior diplomatic source added.

"We'll see how they are going to respond, what they're going to ask of us," he said, noting a planned visit by Kabore to Paris in December.

His government has recently taken the notable step of calling on France's Barkhane anti-terror force in the Sahel for air strikes and other assistance, after refusing for years to seek help from Paris.

For now, no Barkhane troops are stationed in Burkina Faso, where the focus has been on training an army which was severely curtailed after the 2014 ouster of Compaore, who used elite forces as his personal militia.

Kabore remains wary of giving too much power to his own army, in a country which has suffered several attempted or successful coups, notably the 2015 uprising staged by members of Compaore's former presidential guard.

In the meantime, Le Drian announced during his trip a $34m "Three Borders" aid package for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to help spur development, seen as essential for easing the conditions which have allowed the jihadist insurgencies to thrive.

Poverty remains endemic in Burkina Faso, and around half its population of some 20 million people are younger than 17 years old.

But officials admit that even projects as simple as digging wells were not currently possible given the security risks, which are heightening a sense that entire swathes of the country are being abandoned by Ouagadougou.

"We're going to have to stand together," Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said of the risks of attacks as he and Le Drian inaugurated an education and start-up hub in the capital on Friday.

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