MADRID – The bodies of two Spanish journalists and an Irish wildlife activist killed by jihadists in Burkina Faso this week while they were filming a documentary on poaching were flown home Friday as several European countries vowed to keep fighting extremism in Africa's Sahel region.
David Beriáin, 44, and Roberto Fraile, 47, journalists with long experience in conflict zones, had joined Irish conservationist Rory Young on an anti-poaching patrol led by a special military wildlife force in eastern Burkina Faso when their convoy was ambushed Monday by jihadists.
The three Europeans and one Burkinabe soldier were killed, according to Spanish authorities. The government of Burkina Faso said six other people were wounded in the attack and one is still missing.
The bodies of the Europeans were flown overnight from the capital of the African nation, Ouagadougou, on an Airbus provided by the Spanish military. A guard of honor carried their coffins out of the aircraft at a military airport near Madrid, where relatives of the Spanish journalists awaited with Spanish officials and the Irish ambassador to Spain.
“It's a sad day,” Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said following a brief ceremony on the tarmac. “David and Roberto went to lengths to give voice to those who don't have them, to make visible hard realities surrounding us and to strengthen democracy."
The minister announced the two journalists would be awarded Spain's Order of Civil Merit, which recognizes extraordinary contributions by individuals.
The two-person crew was making a documentary on how Burkina Faso’s authorities are tackling poaching, also focusing on the people living in the park. Young, the director of the Chengeta Wildlife Foundation, was leading the patrol in Arly National Park, the group said on Facebook.
Two soldiers wounded in the attack said they tried to protect the foreigners during fighting that lasted three hours, but were outnumbered by the jihadists. One foreign worker of the wildlife foundation did survive, the soldiers told The Associated Press, insisting on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Burkina Faso has been overrun by attacks linked to Islamic extremists that have killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million people.
Violence has surged this week in hard-hit eastern and northern parts of the country. The same day the anti-poaching patrol was ambushed, 18 people were killed by gunmen in the Sahel region. In a statement this week, the government said “terrorists have carried out acts of intimidation, looting and assassinations" on civilians.
The governments of Spain, France, Germany and Italy said in a joint statement that they were committed to supporting the violence-struck region with military training and supplies, but also with humanitarian aid to provide much-needed stability there.
“The area is one of enormous turbulence, with great geostrategic risks for our country,” said González Laya of Spain.
Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles said “the fight against terrorism is not going to stop, we want to be relentless." She also said Spanish intelligence officials were on the ground supporting the Burkinabe government’s investigation into the killings.
Her ministry later said in a statement that the journalists had taken “all precautions” but that Burkinabe forces who succeeded at first in repelling the attack were later “overwhelmed by the firepower of the attackers.” In an initial assessment of the attack, the ministry concluded that the weapons and means used were not of traffickers or furtive hunters, but “of one of the jihadist groups operating in the region.”
Rights groups say there must be a thorough and impartial investigation of the killings.
"(We need to know) the circumstances surrounding their deaths, (which) can help prevent such tragic killings in the future,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
Mednick reported from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.