Burkina Faso's prime minister on Tuesday ruled out negotiations with jihadist insurgents who control swathes of the country, while suggesting that security risks could delay the country's return to civilian rule.
His comments to lawmakers came as officials reported the deaths of around 40 people in weekend attacks attributed to Islamist fighters.
"We will never negotiate, either over Burkina Faso's territorial integrity or its sovereignty," Apollinaire Kyelem de Tambela told the Transitional Legislative Assembly.
Burkina Faso has been ruled since 2022 by a junta led by Captain Ibrahim Traore, who has promised a return to democracy with presidential elections by July 2024.
But de Tambela suggested that attacks could see that timeframe pushed back.
"We cannot organise elections without security. If you have a magic wand to ensure we can hold elections as soon as possible, we'd do it," de Tambela told the representatives.
"If we organised elections now, while part of our territory is inaccessible, they'll say that whoever is elected has been wrongly elected," he said.
He added that the government aimed to double the number of volunteers for the VDP civil defence militia to 100,000 as part of Traore's pledge to recapture the 40 percent of the country's territory seized since 2015 by jihadists affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
"The only negotiations that matter with these armed bandits are those taking place on the battlefield," de Tambela told the Transitional Legislative Assembly.
Also Tuesday, regional officials said an armed convoy was targeted Saturday near Bourasso close to the Malian border, with another local source saying most victims were VDP members.
"The attack caused the death of around 20 people, mainly VDP," the source said, requesting anonymity.
The regional government did not give a death toll, but claimed that 18 insurgents had been wounded and captured.
A security source confirmed the attack on the convoy, adding that air support called in afterwards had "neutralised" around 30 insurgents.
The source also said some 20 people were killed in the same region on Sunday, when suspected jihadists attacked Ouakara, a village around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Bourasso.
One resident told AFP that the toll could rise.
"Many people have left the village for Nouna or Dedougou, because the terrorists gave them a 72-hour deadline to leave the village," the resident said.
'Whatever the cost'
Since taking power, Traore has ousted the French military force deployed to help battle the jihadists in several Sahel nations, and is suspected instead of eyeing Russian military help.
Burkina Faso. By (AFP)
After a series of bloody attacks since the start of this year, the junta announced in April a general mobilisation for the armed forces.
Since 2015, the violence has seen more than 10,000 killed -- both civilians and military -- according to NGOs, and displaced some two million people.
De Tambela said Tuesday that "thanks to our efforts" more than 20,000 households, representing more than 125,000 people, "have returned to their regions," without giving further detail.
"We will defend our territory and our populations whatever the cost," he declared.
The VDP -- Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP) -- comprises civilian volunteers who are given two weeks' military training.
They then work alongside the army, typically carrying out surveillance, information-gathering or escort duties.
The force is one of the cornerstones of Traore's anti-jihadist strategy.
Tens of thousands of people responded to a recruitment drive last year for the VDP volunteer militia. By OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT (AFP)
But since its inception in December 2019, the VDP has suffered hundreds of casualties, especially in ambushes or roadside bombings.
Despite the high losses, the authorities launched a successful recruitment drive last year for the force.
Around 90,000 people signed up in response to a call for patriotism, far exceeding the target of 50,000.