The Saharan nation of Burkina Faso was the scene of the latest terrorist hostage crisis, as al-Qaeda fighters staged a hotel raid similar to the November attack in Mali. This time, the death toll included 28 people from 18 different countries, plus 50 civilians wounded, and 156 hostages freed.
As details of the victims emerge, the death toll was said to include two French citizens, six Canadians, two from Switzerland, one from the Netherlands, seven Burkinabe, one Dutch, one Libyan, one Portuguese, and one American. CBC News reports the American victim was a missionary who ran an orphanage in Burkina Faso.
The National Post of Canada says the Canadian victims included “a married couple, two of their adult children, and two others.” They worked for a relief agency whose volunteers raised over $4,000 apiece to travel to Burkina Faso. The group reportedly “arrived in December, and was scheduled to return to Canada next month, after completing their assignments.”
CNN reports four other slain victims came from a single Ukrainian family, and included a 9-year-old girl. Many of the victims were involved in providing humanitarian relief.
Reuters describes the scene of the attack as an area of the capital city of Ouagadougou “popular with Westerners and French soldiers based in Burkina Faso.” Most of the action took place at the Splendid Hotel, although there were also reports of casualties at the nearby Cappucino restaurant and another nearby hotel, the Yibi.
The attackers were described as black-clad militants brandishing AK-47 rifles and grenades. The police described them as “Arabs” and “black Africans.” Witnesses heard shouts of “Allahu akbar!” from the gunmen.
“They kept coming back. You’d think it was over, then they’d come back and shoot more people. They would come back and see if the white people were moving and then they would shoot them again,” said one survivor of the massacre in the Cappucino.
The National Post reports the attack began Friday evening, before the nightly curfew, and lasted for 15 hours. The tactics of the gunmen seemed erratic, with witnesses describing them popping in and out of the restaurant several times, firing a few shots with each appearance, and eventually setting the restaurant on fire.
However, CNN reports the assault appeared to be “well-planned” overall, with some of the attackers arriving early and mingling with hotel guests before the massacre began. Cars outside the hotel were set on fire, and guns were fired into the air, to drive people inside the building, so there would be more victims packed into an enclosed space.
Survivors spoke of hiding in the toilets, fleeing to the roof of the cafe, and playing dead. “Everyone was panicked and was lying down on the floor. There was blood everywhere, they were shooting at people at point blank,” one survivor told CNN.
Another survivor, an employee of the cafe, told CBC News he was able to escape because the jihadi who would have killed him ran out of bullets, and had a difficult time reloading his weapon.
The hotel entrance was unguarded, so the jihadis were able to walk right in and begin shooting people and taking hostages. They were eventually confronted by a combination of local police and French commandos, including special forces based in Mali. CNN reports American troops also provided logistical support. The siege ended in an intense 40-minute gun battle that wounded two police officers and two soldiers, one of them French.
It looks as if all of this carnage was perpetrated by a very small group of attackers, perhaps as few as four shooters in total. Three of them were killed during the battle. Both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and an affiliated group, Al-Mourabitoun, have claimed responsibility, according to CNN. Al-Mourabitoun also claimed responsibility for the hotel massacre in neighboring Mali.
The assault on the Cappucino cafe and Splendid Hotel was not the only terrorist violence in the country over the weekend, as two Australian doctors were reported kidnapped from a clinic in Djibo near the Mali border on Saturday. Reuters says the victims had been living in the town and providing medical services since 1972.
Burkina Faso has not previously seen a great deal of terrorist activity before now. The nation is described by Reuters as “majority Muslim but religiously diverse,” while the National Post calls Ouagadougou a “dusty administrative and cultural center,” known as a “calm, even dreary city,” with hundreds of foreign residents working for diplomatic and relief operations.
However, analyst Cynthia Ohayon of the International Crisis Group told Reuters, “There have been warning signs, and if there is an element of surprise, it is that this did not come earlier.”
Burkina Faso’s longtime President Blaise Compaore was recently driven from power, ending 30 years of autocratic rule. It is said that his comfortable personal relationship with rebel and Islamist groups kept Burkina Faso safe from the waves of Islamist terrorism washing across the region. CNN notes that a new president was elected in November, after being delayed by a month due to an attempted coup against the transitional government.