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Burkina Faso Will Observe 3 Days Of Mourning After Weekend Massacre

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A massacre over the weekend left more than 130 people dead in Burkina Faso.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

At least seven of those killed were children. The government is blaming militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, but so far, no group has claimed responsibility.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien is covering the story from Freetown in Sierra Leone. Jason, thanks for being here.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: What more do we know about this attack at this point?

BEAUBIEN: Well, what we know is that heavily armed militants attacked this village in the middle of the night. Witnesses say that the shooting started at 2 in the morning. And this occurred in a really remote part of Burkina Faso up near the border with Niger. It's in the Sahel, this semiarid region that stretches along the southern part of the Sahara. And it appeared organized and deliberate. The gunmen targeted members of the local defense force. They killed civilians. They destroyed houses, burned the local market to the ground. You know, the U.N. is calling this one of the worst attacks in the Sahel in years. And the reports of the number of people killed vary, but it appears to be at least 138 dead in this village.

MARTIN: Why was this village a target?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, this part of West Africa has become a staging ground for al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It's a very wide open, remote area. These militant groups have found this to be a place where they can operate freely. They come to control migrant smuggling routes. They move a lot of migrants up to the Mediterranean as they try to cross into Europe. And we need to underscore this is a major conflict. You've got thousands of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the area. France has another 5,000 troops battling these armed militants. That's on top of the local government soldiers. Yet the militants just slip back and forth across the borders with ease. They disappear into the Sahara desert. They terrorize and kidnap the locals, you know, apparently at will. The U.N. earlier this year said that clashes between these militants has driven 2 million people in the region from their homes, and this conflict often gets overlooked in the U.S., but it's having a huge impact in West Africa.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, this region includes Mali, which has just had its second coup in less than a year. So what is the broader effect of this political instability?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, Mali geographically is a big country. It takes up a lot of space in West Africa. And there's a lot of problems when you've got political stability there. It just makes it much easier for these lawless groups to operate. And the fear is that this could become a new staging ground for al-Qaida, Islamic State or other groups, you know, in a way that Afghanistan was before 9/11. The fundamental problem is that these nations in the Sahel - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger - these are some of the poorest countries on the continent. And when armed groups start to control an area, terrorize the locals, it puts everything else, you know, education, health, economic growth, all of that ends up on the back burner. The fear among Western military planners is that you're going to have this instability and lawlessness allow al-Qaida and Islamic State to grow and expand their campaigns of violence elsewhere.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Jason, thank you. We appreciate it.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.