Cameroon’s president demanded anglophone separatists lay down their arms after dozens of schoolchildren were seized in a kidnapping the army blamed on the rebels.
Assailants kidnapped 79 children, their principal, and a driver from a school in Bamenda in Northwest Region, military and government sources said.
“They need to know that they will face the rigour of the law and the determination of our defence and security forces,” President Paul Biya said in an inauguration speech. He was re-elected last month, extending his 36-year rule.
“I appeal to them to lay down their arms,” he told the national assembly, without mentioning the kidnapping.
A separatist spokesman denied involvement and said government soldiers had staged the kidnapping to discredit the rebels. Clashes began more than a year ago, killing more than 400 civilians and forcing thousands from their homes.
Crimes against civilians
Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said he had been mediating with the kidnappers for the children’s release. He said separatists were responsible.
He added another 11 schoolchildren had been abducted by the same armed group on October 31, but the school had quietly paid a ransom for their release of $4,400.
A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the kidnappings and called on Tuesday for their immediate release.
Guterres stressed “there can be no justification for these crimes against civilians, particularly minors”, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
A video was released on social media Monday by the apparent kidnappers, showing some of the boys saying they were taken by separatists fighting to create the independent state of Ambazonia.
However, the Ambazonia Governing Council, the separatists’ official organisation, released a statement condemning the kidnappings and demanding freedom for people taken from the school.
The council called on the military to withdraw from the regions it calls Ambazonia to avoid further escalation of violence.
‘Attend the grievances’
The unrest began in November 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the northwest and southwest began calling for reforms and greater autonomy in the largely French-speaking country.
They marched in the streets, criticising what they called the marginalisation of English speakers by French speakers. Armed separatists later took over the protests and began using violence in pursuit of their goal.
“The objective of the secessionists is against our constitution that consecrates the indivisible nature of our nation,” Biya said. “We have started implementing measures to attend to the grievances raised by teachers and lawyers by accelerating the decentralisation process.”
The conflict poses a serious challenge for Cameroon, a close US security ally and a new member of the UN Human Rights Council.
The US State Department condemned the kidnappings and called for the immediate safe return of students and staff.
“We urge an immediate halt to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and burning of houses by Cameroonian government forces and to attacks perpetrated by … anglophone separatists,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.