By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, May 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deadly attacks on Christians in a "safe haven" for thousands fleeing violence in Burkina Faso mark a new phase of crisis, the United Nations said on Thursday, as jihadis expand their reach.
About 16 people died in three attacks on churches and a religious procession in the last two weeks, threatening to upend traditionally peaceful relations between the Muslim majority and Christians, who make up a quarter of Burkinabes.
"We are really preoccupied because we thought the Centre-Nord was a safe haven for families fleeing attacks," said Metsi Makhetha, head of the United Nations in Burkina Faso, referring to the region where two attacks took place on Sunday and Monday.
Centre-Nord hosts about one-third of 170,000 people who have fled their homes, Makhetha said, most driven southwards by rising violence in the country's northern Sahel region, the militants' stronghold.
"We are now facing a situation where the Centre-Nord is becoming the epicentre of attacks," Makhetha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that many people were sleeping in the open due to lack of shelter.
Burkina Faso has been beset by a rise in attacks this year as groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda based in neighbouring Mali seek to extend their influence over the porous borders of the Sahel, the arid scrubland south of the Sahara.
"Access is withering as armed groups expand. We are entering a critical phase," said Makhetha.
Only a few displacement camps have been set up, and the vast majority of people are crowding into villages with host families who already struggle to support themselves, she added.
About 9,000 displaced people had taken refuge in the town of Dablo, where six people were shot dead outside a church on Sunday, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
OCHA did not know how many had fled as a result, but Makhetha said each attack prompts new displacement and makes it harder for aid workers to reach people with food and water.
"People are arriving practically every day," said Antoine Some, a nutritionist for charity Medecins du Monde in the town of Dori, on the edge of the Sahel Reserve.
"It's people who have lost everything, whether it's the first or second time they've fled," he said.
The humanitarian crisis is a first for Burkina Faso, which was largely peaceful until three years ago when a local Islamist group, Ansarul Islam, started to gain hold.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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