Gunmen on Sunday killed at least six people in an attack on a Protestant church in Burkina Faso, says the government spokesman, in the latest violence to rock the formerly peaceful West African nation.
Unidentified gunmen killed one pastor and five congregants in an attack on a Protestant church in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday, government spokesman Remy Fulgance Dandjinou said on Monday.
Burkina Faso has been beset by rising violence this year, but the attack was the first of its kind on a church in the religiously tolerant West African country, Dandjinou told Reuters.
Sunday's raid took place in the small northern town of Silgadji near Djibo, the capital of Soum province.
It was the first attack on a church since violence erupted in Burkina Faso in 2015.
The government declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December because of deadly attacks, including in Soum, the region where Sunday's attack took place.
Former colonial ruler France has deployed some 4,500 troops in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in a mission codenamed Barkhane to help local forces try to flush out militant groups.
"The attack happened around 1:00 pm, just as the faithful were leaving the church at the end of the service," a member of the church who did not want to be identified told AFP.
"The attackers were on motorbikes. They fired in the air before aiming at the members of the congregation," the witness added.
Burkina Faso has suffered from increasingly frequent and deadly attacks attributed to a number of militant groups.
The raids began in 2015 in the north before targeting the capital Ouagadougou and other regions, notably in the east.
A total of 350 people have been killed since 2015 – mainly in hit-and-run raids – according to an AFP tally.
The militant groups regularly target both Muslim and Christian clerics, mainly in the north.
In February, a Spanish Catholic priest, Father Cesar Fernandez, was killed in a raid attributed to militants in Nohao in the centre of the country.
He was returning from the adjoining country of Togo when it happened.
Fernandez, 72, had been working in Africa since 1982 for the Salesians of Don Bosco order.
In March, gunmen abducted Catholic priest Father Joel Yougbare from Botogui, near Djibo, in the north. The Catholic Church has not yet confirmed reports that his body has since been found.
Several imams have also been killed in the north.
According to security sources, the militants do not consider these Muslim clerics sufficiently radical and sometimes accuse them of having collaborated with the authorities.
But religious leaders are not the only people targeted by the militants. On Friday, militants attacked a village school in Maitaougou, in the eastern province of Koulpelogo, killing five teachers and a municipal worker.
Human Right Watch's Sahel director Corinne Dufka recently said that the surge in militant violence and a government crackdown had "forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee since early 2019.
"Scores of people have been murdered in what amounts to a dramatic deterioration in the rights situation in northern Burkina Faso," she said last month.
Around 4.3 million people have been driven from their homes in the worsening violence that has engulfed the entire Sahel region, including one million over the past year, according to UN humanitarian officials.