Twenty-eight bodies were found in Nouna in northwest Burkina Faso over the weekend, the government said, noting an investigation was underway as speculation grew over who may be responsible.
"The government has been informed of a tragedy that occurred in Nouna, capital of the province of Kossi, during the night of December 30 to 31," said a statement by government spokesman Jean Emmanuel Ouédraogo. Initial reports "put the death toll at 28 people.
The Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities (CISC) has denounced "abuses" committed by Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP, army auxiliaries).
The government statement added that an investigation "was immediately opened (...) to elucidate the circumstances of the tragedy and to establish all responsibilities. "Pending the outcome of the investigation", it "calls on the entire population to remain calm", stating that "all measures are being taken to shed light on this unacceptable violence".
"This tragedy occurs at a time when Burkina Faso has engaged in an operation to mobilize the entire people for unity of action in the fight against terrorism," the spokesman notes.
Burkina Faso has been facing attacks by jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State since 2015, which are on the rise. They have left thousands dead and at least two million displaced and were partly responsible for two military coups in 2022.
The government says it remains "fundamentally opposed to any form of abuse or human rights violations on any grounds.
A statement by Armel Sama, the prosecutor at the Nouna high court, said "most of the victims, all male, were shot to death."
Many Fulani community members say they're afraid of the terrorists. But they also fear the volunteer militias, because some suspect the community of supporting the jihadists.
Prior to the release of these official statements, the human rights organization CISC had just denounced "targeted attacks on civilians."
"Armed civilians claiming to be" VDP are "freely engaging in organized looting and targeted violence against civilians against a background of racial profiling and stigmatization."
On Saturday, "following a terrorist attack on the VDP headquarters in Nouna armed dozos (traditional hunters), identified by the victims as VDP, carried out murderous acts in retaliation.
"The death toll has risen to 21 people, including children, but it continues to rise as information arrives from the field," said CISC Secretary General Daouda Diallo.
Lack of confidence in the government's ability to stem the extremist violence contributed to two coups in the Sahelian country last year.
Violence against the Fulani people has increased since the country's new junta leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traore, seized power in September, some rights groups alleged. Between October and January Diallo's group documented nearly 250 cases of extrajudicial killings compared to 95 in the previous four months, said Diallo.
According to him, there were more initiatives for dialogue between communities and the jihadis under the rule of the previous junta leader, Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba.