The death toll from a firefight in an English-speaking region of Cameroon shaken by an armed separatist campaign stands at 32, including five “hostages,” the government said.
The clash erupted at a motel last Friday in Menka, in the Northwest Region — one of two regions gripped by fighting over the last eight months.
“Twenty-seven terrorists (were) neutralised” by a 30-member special unit of police and troops, government spokesman Tchiroma Bakary, who is also communications minister, said late Monday.
The group, which were attacked at a hotel, was an “armed gang” that for months had been “sowing terror and desolation” in the region, killing gendarmes and carrying out kidnappings, rape and extortion, he charged.
Out of “15 hostages” taken by the group, five died, all of them at the hands of the attackers, he said.
About a fifth of French-speaking Cameroon’s population of 22 million is anglophone.
For years, resentment built among anglophones, fostered by perceived marginalisation in education, the judiciary and the economy at the hands of the French-speaking majority.
Demands for greater autonomy were rejected by 85-year-old President Paul Biya, in power for more than 35 years.
The crisis escalated last October after the declaration of the self-described “Republic of Ambazonia” in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, causing scores of deaths and prompting tens of thousands to flee their homes.
Human-rights watchdogs point to a range of abuses, including abductions and targeted killings.
Security forces found five pump-action shotguns, of a type only used by special forces, as well as 17 combat guns and 10 hunting rifles, about 30 military uniforms as well as five berets “which belonged to police and gendarmes who were shot dead in cold blood by the same terrorists,” Tchiroma said.
He denied “allegations that the Cameroonian army carried out a massacre on the civilian population”.
Tchiroma said images of the dead at Menka have been widely distributed on social media, prompting human-rights watchdogs and opposition politicians to voice outrage.
Nji Tumasang, an MP with the English-speaking opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), speaking after a party delegation visited Menka on Saturday, said 22 people had been killed.
Their identity was unclear, but villagers said they were criminals, not “terrorists” as the army had said, Tumasang said.
Cameroon’s linguistic division dates back to the colonial period. It was once a German colony and was divided between Britain and France after World War I.
In 1960, the French part gained independence, becoming Cameroon, and the following year, the British-ruled Southern Cameroons was amalgamated into it, becoming the Northwest and Southwest Regions.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, “at least 120” civilians and “at least 43” security forces have been killed since the end of 2016.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says around 160,000 people have been internally displaced and 20,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring Nigeria as a result of the violence.