Armed assailants attacked several targets in Burkina Faso’s capital on Friday, including the army headquarters and the French embassy, in a coordinated assault that France’s ambassador to the West African region called a terrorist attack. It was the third major attack in Ouagadougou in just over two years. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but previous attacks were conducted by allies of al Qaeda in reprisal for Burkina Faso’s participation in a regional fight against Islamist militants.
A Burkina Faso government statement said four gunmen were “neutralised” at the French embassy, adding that operations were continuing and there was no immediate information on civilian casualties. The defence minister said three assailants were killed at the army headquarters. Witnesses said masked gunmen attacked the downtown army headquarters at around 10 a.m. (1000 GMT). “I saw people with sacks on their backs attack the guard. Then I heard the explosion. I saw soldiers flee the army headquarters building running,” witness Kader Sanou told Reuters.
The explosion rocked the compound, setting the building on fire and sending up a thick column of black smoke. Panicked residents fled the city centre on foot or motorbikes as dozens of Burkina Faso special forces and armoured vehicles took up positions in the area. A Reuters reporter saw an ambulance entering the army compound. “Burkinabe security forces are mobilized against the attackers with the support of security forces at our embassy,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a statement.
The French targets attacked are symbolic given that French President Emmanuel Macron chose to outline his Africa strategy, including the fight against militants, in November in Ouagadougou. France’s ambassador to Burkina Faso Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes confirmed to Reuters that the embassy compound, around two kilometres (1.24 miles) from the army headquarters, also came under attack but gave no further details.
The embassy initially said on its Facebook page that an attack was underway at the embassy as well as Ouagadougou’s French cultural institute. However it later amended the message to say it was “not clear at this stage which sites are targeted”. France’s embassy and cultural institute in Ouagadougou are no longer in danger, an aide to Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said.
Police took up positions near the offices of the prime minister where gunfire was also reported. French President Emmanuel Macron was being kept up to date with events in Ouagadougou, the Elysee Palace said in a statement. A Reuters reporter said gunfire had largely ceased by noon. Jean-Marc Châtaigner, France’s ambassador to West Africa’s Sahel region, tweeted: “Terrorist attack this morning in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: solidarity with colleagues and Burkinabe friends.” He urged people to avoid the city centre.
Islamist militants have stepped up attacks in major cities in West Africa the last few years, including deadly assaults in Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Niger. Suspected jihadists killed at least 18 people last August during a raid on a restaurant in Ouagadougou, and militants have targeted Burkinabe security forces along its remote northern border region with Mali.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for an attack on a restaurant and hotel in Ouagadougou in January 2016 in which 30 people were killed. Five countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania – launched a new taskforce last year to tackle Islamist militants in the arid Sahel region, to which international donors have committed half a billion dollars.