“The attackers were mostly children between the ages of 12 and 14,” he told reporters this week in the capital, Ouagadougou.
The announcement comes as 10 percent of Burkina Faso’s schools have shuttered due to rising insecurity — a trend that researchers say makes children more vulnerable to abuse, human trafficking and combat recruitment.
Government spokesman Ousseni Tamboura said the majority of the attackers were children, prompting condemnation from the U.N.
“We strongly condemn the recruitment of children and adolescents by non-state armed groups. This is a grave violation of their fundamental rights,” the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement on Thursday.
“We are alarmed by the presence of children within armed groups,” Sandra Lattouf, Unicef’s Burkina Faso representative, said in a statement Thursday. “While living among armed actors, children experience unconscionable forms of violence including physical and sexual violence or high level of traumatic experiences.”
Children have long been swept into the developing world’s wars. Many are kidnapped, plied with drugs, and brainwashed, researchers say. Escapees describe the experience as traumatizing.
Children forced to join Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, for instance, said their abductors threatened to kill anyone who refused to participate in attacks. The extremist group is notorious for strapping bombs onto young girls, then sending them into crowds.
The government did not offer further details about the children involved in Burkina Faso’s conflict. It was unclear which group staged the attack in a region with multiple insurgencies.
“Every now and then, one stumbles across photographs of fighters who clearly look underage,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), “and testimonies from hostages have also reported the young age of the fighters in the groups holding them, but generally the fighters are in their upper teens.”
Despite interventions from U.N. peacekeepers and international armed forces, attacks by Islamist extremists continue unabated across West Africa’s Sahel region, including neighbouring Mali and Niger.
Local officials in Burkina Faso’s north, where jihadists control large areas, said child soldiers have been used by Islamist groups over the past year, but this month’s attack was by far the highest-profile case.
It represented a new low for the impoverished West African country that since 2018 has seen a sharp rise in attacks on civilians and soldiers.
Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 1.2 million are displaced, UNICEF said, many of whom have been forced into makeshift camps dotted across the arid north, east, and centre. Over 2,200 schools have been closed – about one in ten – affecting over 300,000 children.