DAKAR, Senegal — The bodies of at least 180 men thought to have been killed by security forces have been found dumped in fields, by roadsides and under bridges in a town in the West African country of Burkina Faso over the past eight months, witnesses told human rights researchers.
Residents of the town, Djibo, in the north of the country, said many of the bodies were found shot and blindfolded, their hands bound. Many said they recognized relatives among the dead.
The testimony is contained in a new report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch and matches the accounts of several witnesses interviewed for a recent investigation by The New York Times into extrajudicial killings by Burkina Faso’s security forces.
Terrorists, government security forces and bandits have killed thousands of people in the country in the past four years, plunging what was a peaceful nation into conflict and chaos. Nearly a million people have fled.
Residents said the men killed were mostly members of the Fulani ethnic group, which has been targeted for recruitment by terrorist organizations, and, therefore, for reprisals by government forces.
Djibo is a Fulani-majority town founded in the 16th century, and it has long been home to the country’s biggest cattle market.
One young resident of Djibo said in an interview with the Times in March that he often saw corpses on his way to the bus. An animal trader said in another interview that he had stopped buying cows in Djibo because seeing the bodies terrified him. Neither wanted to be named for fear of reprisals.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry declined to comment, and referred to a statement by the defense minister, Chérif Sy, issued to Human Rights Watch. Mr. Sy said in the statement that the allegations would be investigated.
He also said that those responsible for the killings might not be soldiers, but terrorists disguised in army uniforms.
“They are experts when it comes to sowing confusion, and seeming like members of the armed forces to the population,” he wrote.
But Djibo is openly controlled and patrolled by the military, so it is unlikely that terrorist groups would be able to operate there. Several residents told researchers that they saw soldiers arrest men who turned up dead in Djibo a few days later.
Human remains were first discovered strewn around Djibo’s suburbs starting in November, residents told Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive research on abuses in Burkina Faso.
The bodies were not hidden, and residents were too scared to bury them lest they become associated with someone accused of being a terrorist. So the bodies lay where they were dumped.
“The bodies stayed there for anywhere from a few days before they were buried, or months, until they just turned into skeletons and were dispersed by the animals,” said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s Sahel director.
Ms. Dufka called for an investigation and for those responsible to be prosecuted. In recent months, new reports say, government forces have stepped up attacks on civilians in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, three countries in the Sahel, a long band of arid land south of the Sahara.
In Burkina Faso, members of the traditionally nomadic Fulani ethnic group say they bear the brunt of military attacks. Terrorist groups usually recruit from the Fulani community, analysts say, so soldiers target Fulani villages in revenge for attacks on their comrades or because they suspect them of helping the enemy.
The 180 killed in Djibo may fit into this pattern. Since they had no trials, there is no evidence they were connected with the terrorists.
Most of the dead in Djibo were buried in mass graves in early March, residents said, after they convinced the authorities that the corpses posed a public health hazard.