Cameroon releases 333 prisoners amid national dialogue

Rebel leaders dismiss president’s limited amnesty, calling for release of thousands of people imprisoned since 2016.

Presidential elections in Cameroon
Biya faces what has become a major threat to his nearly 40-year rule [Jean Pierre Kepseu/Anadolu]

Cameroon‘s President Paul Biya has said he will drop charges against 333 prisoners arrested for their alleged roles in a two-year separatist uprising, but rebel leaders dismissed the move as a political stunt and pledged to keep fighting.

Thursday’s announcement made on Twitter comes during talks launched by Biya to end fighting between rebels and the military that has killed more than 1,800 people, displaced over 500,000 and put a major dent in the economy.

The so-called “national dialogue” faltered before it began on Monday when separatist leaders said they would not participate because their demands had not been met. It went ahead anyway, with politicians, civil society groups and religious groups attending the event which is due to end on Friday.

But Thursday’s move represented one of Biya’s largest concessions yet amid what has become a major threat to his nearly 40-year rule.

“I have ordered the discontinuance of proceedings pending before Military Tribunals against 333 persons arrested for misdemeanours, in connection with the crisis in the North-West and South-West Regions,” Biya said on Twitter.

Anglophone separatists, who are trying to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia in the majority French-speaking country’s two minority English-speaking regions, on Thursday said that the amnesty did not go far enough.

The separatists have called for the release of what they say are 5,000 people imprisoned since 2016, including 10 leaders who were sentenced in August to life in prison on terrorism charges, and the withdrawal of Cameroon’s military from the North-West and South-West Regions.

“We will not accept an olive branch from someone whose troops are still in our territory,” said Ivo Tapang, a spokesman for 13 armed groups called the Contender Forces of Ambazonia. “We will intensify our struggle with guns and bullets.”

Peaceful protests

The unrest emerged after a government crackdown on peaceful protests late in 2016 in the North-West and South-West Regions by lawyers and teachers who complained of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.

In the following months, protests turned violent.

By 2017, newly formed armed groups were attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions. The army responded by burning down villages and shooting civilians, witnesses have told Reuters News Agency.

The oil, cocoa and timber-producing nation was among central Africa’s most stable until a few years ago.

But, in addition to the separatist uprising, it also faces the threat of violence by the Boko Haram armed group, which has spilled over from Nigeria into its northern territory.

Source: News Agencies