At least six people were killed — including a priest — after a Catholic church was attacked and then set ablaze Sunday by a group of armed men in the western African country of Burkina Faso, according to local reports.
The attack happened in the northern town of Dablo, not far from the volatile border with Mali, at the beginning of Mass, Radio France Internationale reported.
A security source told the radio network that Mass had just begun when a “group of some 20 to 30 armed men” approached on motorcycles.
The mayor of the village, Ousmane Zongo, told Agence France-Presse the gunmen then burst into the church.
“They started firing as the congregation tried to flee,” he told the news agency. “They burned down the church, then shops and a small restaurant before going to the health center where they searched the premises and set fire to the head nurse’s vehicle.”
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Zongo said the attack left the city “filled with panic,” according to Reuters.
“People are holed up at home. Shops and stores are closed,” he told AFP. “It’s practically a ghost town.”
One resident of the town told RFI it was the first time the village had been attacked.
“There was no sign of any threat to this town,” the resident told the radio network.
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While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, violent Islamic extremism has been increasingly destabilizing the country. A number of jihadist groups are known to operate the area.
Another attack on a Christian church in the region last month after Sunday services left six dead, including a pastor. The Islamic extremists also have targeted foreigners, abducting and killing a Canadian geologist earlier this year.
The attack came two days after the release of two hostages in Burkina Faso during a daring French special forces military operation that resulted in the deaths of two of their own soldiers. The hostages who were rescued, according to France, were a U.S. citizen, a South Korean national, and French nationals Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas.
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While it is not yet clear who abducted the group and why, Burkina Faso – once considered a beacon of calm in the otherwise terror-teeming region – has been a growing hotbed for some time.
Over the past six months, at least 5,000 people have been killed in the Sahel – the sub-Saharan region of northern Africa – amid an escalation of inter-ethnic violence ranging from bombings to massacres to suicide attacks.
Fox News also reported last year that Al Qaeda too had gained a foothold in the region, spilling over the porous border from Mali with weapons pillaged from Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2012.
Fox News Greg Norman, Hollie McKay and the Associated Press contributed to this report.