OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—Two Spanish citizens have been killed in an ambush in eastern Burkina Faso, the Spanish government said on Tuesday.
The Spanish journalists and an Irish citizen went missing during an attack by gunmen Monday near a national park, said Arancha González Laya, Spain’s foreign affairs minister, in a press conference.
The two Spaniards are from northern Spain and were working on a documentary on how Burkina Faso’s authorities were tackling poaching and on the communities of people living in the park. At the time of the attack, they were traveling with an anti-poaching patrol with about 40 people, she said.
“It is a dangerous area where terrorists, bandits, and jihadists usually operate,” said González Laya.
The Irish government said it was “aware of the reports and is liaising closely with international partners regarding the situation on the ground.”
An audio message heard by The Associated Press that purports to be from a jihadist group known as JNIM that is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack. “We killed three white people. We also got two vehicles with guns, and 12 motorcycles,” said the recording.
Burkina Faso’s special military wildlife unit was ambushed Monday morning while traveling with the foreigners, 9 miles from their base at the eastern town of Natiaboni, Yendifimba Jean-Claude Louari, the mayor of Fada N’gourma, the main town in the east, told AP.
“This attack is of significant importance because it shows (the jihadists) capacity to mount a strategic and deadly attack against a significant convoy heavily protected by Burkinabe security forces and rangers,” said Flore Berger a researcher in the Sahel, the vast area south of the Sahara Desert that stretches across West Africa.
Two soldiers wounded in the attack and evacuated to a military hospital in the capital, Ouagadougou, told AP they were attacked by jihadists who outnumbered their 15-person patrol. One soldier was shot in the leg and the other in his arm, causing it to be amputated. They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. When the jihadists attacked, the soldiers tried to form a protective shield around the foreigners, but once the shooting stopped they realized they had disappeared, he said.
“We were discouraged. It’s like you leave your house with 10 people, you go to work and then you come back with eight people. What do you say to those two people’s families?” said one of the soldiers.
The foreigners had been traveling with the rangers for approximately one week, two of them were journalists and one was a trainer, said the soldiers. The rangers were conducting their first mission in Arly National Park after finishing a six-month anti-poaching training program, he said.
Burkina Faso has been attacked by jihadist attacks linked to al-Qaida and the ISIS terrorist group that have killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million people. The east is one of the hardest-hit parts of the country, and while it’s unclear which group operates where the attack occurred, conflict analysts say the area is known to be under jihadist control and that the groups engage in kidnappings as a way to fund their operations.
“Foreign nationals are a preferable target to be used as bargaining chips in exchange for ransom,” said Heni Nsaibia, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Since the early 2000s terrorist groups have developed a kidnapping industry in the Sahel, five foreign hostages are still missing, including two taken from Burkina Faso, he said.
By Sam Mednick and Aritz Parra