OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Seventeen soldiers and 36 volunteer fighters have been killed in heavy clashes with militants in northern Burkina Faso, the army said on Tuesday, the worst attack in months in the West African country that for years has been overrun by hardline militants.
Burkina Faso has been battling armed groups, some with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State, in its desert north since 2015.
Attacks have worsened this year, making the country the epicentre of a violent movement that has also engulfed poverty-stricken Mali and Niger, killing thousands and forcing millions from their homes.
Efforts by the army to retake areas have often led to huge increases in violence.
The latest fighting in Burkina Faso took place on Monday in Yatenga province, where the army has been trying to reconquer territory to allow displaced villagers to return home, the statement said. Operations were still under way in the area.
Burkina Faso saw two military coups last year, triggered in part by insecurity. After the second one in October, Burkina Faso ordered French forces to leave amid growing tension between the junta and Paris.
Short on troops and supplies, Burkina Faso's rulers have turned increasingly to volunteer defence forces to help. These armed civilians, who help police the rural north, are frequently caught up in deadly assaults, including in April when 34 were killed in a raid.
The junta has also looked to Russia to fill the void left by France's exit.
A Russian delegation held talks with Burkina Faso's interim president Ibrahim Traore last week at a meeting that included discussions on possible military cooperation.
(This story has been refiled to fix the reporting credit)
(Writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Estelle Shirbon and Nick Macfie)