Togo army admits to killing seven children in a blast on July 10 in the hamlet of Margba, in Tone Prefecture, in the country’s northernmost Savanna area near the border with Burkina Faso.
The military revealed in a statement released on Thursday that the teenagers aged 14 to 18 were targeted by air attacks at dawn after being mistaken for a group of “jihadists” who entered the nation based on intelligence acquired.
“This tragedy occurred against a backdrop of consistent intelligence reports of threats of infiltration by armed gangs with intention of carrying out terrorist attacks against localities in the northern part of Togo,” the statement said.
“Given the imminent danger, and determined to ward off any hostile action that might endanger the population, the command of Koundjoare Operation reinforced the surveillance and control of the area by land and air. It was during these operations that an aircraft on night patrol mistakenly targeted a group of people it mistook for a column of moving jihadists.”
Koundjoare is a military outpost established in the town as part of efforts to thwart potential moves by armed groups in Burkina Faso to sneak into the country.
The admission comes to light after an investigation launched following the death of the seven children killed as they were returning home late at night from celebrations of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Two others also were wounded.
At the time, the Togolese army said a blast caused the death of youngsters but did not elaborate on the cause of the explosion.
Since June 13, the Savanna region has been under a state of emergency as part of President Faure Gnassingbe’s administration’s efforts to overcome activity of armed groups spilling over from Burkina Faso, the epicentre of conflict in the Sahel.
In the May, eight soldiers were killed and 13 others wounded at a security outpost in the locality of Kpendjal in the Savanna region by unknown gunmen.
Last November, security forces repelled a similar attack by unidentified armed men that the government believed came from Burkina Faso.
Louis Kamako, the secretary-general of Journaliste en Mission pour le Développement (JMD), a civil society organisation, welcomed the army’s apologies and called on authorities to attend to families of the victims.
“We must acknowledge that this reaction of the Togolese Armed Forces is an event,” Kamako said. “An event, because in Togo we are used to opening investigations without ever closing them. But this one is about the army and the findings of the investigation have been released in 72 hours, so we can only be happy.”
“Now that we know the findings, this simply means that the state must attend to parents of the victims and address the soldiers involved in this tragedy,” he added.
Farida Nabourema, a well-known Togolese human rights activist, was harsh in her criticism of the administration.
“This level of recklessness … when the military of the bloody dictator @FEGnassingbe execute children between the ages of 9 and 15 under the pretext that they thought they were terrorists, can they tell us how they identify a terrorist?” she tweeted. “What does a terrorist look like?”