Military forces arrested several hundred people in Cameroon’s North West and South West regions this week as they searched for those behind the killing of at least 13 civilians in the regions, including aid workers.
Public sentiment was inflamed when videos of beheaded women and civilians stabbed or shot to death were shared on social media.
The government blames separatist forces for the deaths, and the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde on Friday condemned what it called the horrific and senseless attacks by armed separatist fighters.
However, Prince Ekosso, president of the opposition United Socialist Democratic Party, says the arrests are an overreaction to the killings.
“The people of South West and North West cannot continue to suffer like this,” Ekosso said. “It is not supposed to be a collective arrest. It is supposed to be a systematic investigation so that they can find the culprits and bring them to book. You don’t go and punish innocent people for the crime of another person.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Prudence Egbe said the military raided several neighborhoods in Muyuka, a southwestern town, on Thursday. She said that after forcefully searching their family house and finding nothing that could implicate anyone, the military still left with her older brother, who drives a motorcycle, and accused him of aiding the separatists.
“They tortured him,” Egbe said. “What he does is he carries people to the market and brings them back. Since they arrested him, we don’t even know what he is going through.”
The government acknowledged that people were arrested in Muyuka, but did not give details.
Earlier, separatist fighters in Muyuka had killed Bih Blanche Chi, a 35-year-old mother of four, for allegedly being an informant for government forces. In a video circulated on social media, the woman pleads her innocence before her throat is cut with a machete.
Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of the English-speaking South West Region where Muyuka is located, denied the population is being brutalized. He said civilians are happy that the military is protecting them from barbaric fighters.
“The populations are reacting positively now,” Bilai said. “They are collaborating with the forces of law and order to denounce those who are disturbing in their territory.”
Similar mass arrests and torturing of civilians have been reported in towns in the North West region, where two teachers, a humanitarian worker and a 30-year-old woman were killed.
Since 2016, separatists have fought to split the North West and South West regions, where the predominant language is English, from the rest of Cameroon and its French-speaking majority.
The four-year conflict has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced 500,000 others, according to the United Nations.