The military freed people held by separatists during its two-day operation, military spokesman Col. Didier Badjeck said Wednesday. Fighting was intense in the Mayo Binka area near Nkambe, he said. While no soldiers have been killed, he said the death toll for armed separatists may increase, as fighters escape into the bush.
In a separate incident, the mayor of Nwa, a local council in the same region, was found dead Wednesday and he is believed to have been killed by separatists, said Emmanuel Bunyui, the mayor of the nearby town of Ndu. Many mayors in English-speaking regions have been targeted by armed separatists demanding an independent English-speaking state, which they call Ambazonia.
"When we hoist the Cameroon flag in the council premises, we are targeted by the armed men who insist that we should instead display their blue and white flag," Bunyui said. These incidents have highlighted the separatist unrest in Cameroon, which began in 2016, when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the northwest and southwest staged demonstrations calling for reforms, criticizing what they called the marginalization of the Anglophone population, which accounts for about one-fifth of the country's 25 million people.
Violence increased after factions of separatists armed themselves following a government clampdown on protests in 2017. Armed separatists have vowed to destabilize the regions and hundreds of civilians have been killed and dozens of schools have been burned and teachers threatened.
In the past year, more than 1,200 people including separatists, police, military and gendarmes have been killed in the fighting, according to military spokesman Badjeck. Recently 79 students and three staff were kidnapped from a school by suspected separatists, and they have all now been released.
More than 100 civilians have escaped the violence and fled to the capital, Yaounde. "I am just going to nowhere. I am afraid," said Kenneth Kongyu, 19, who joined 75 other people who walked 60 kilometers (37 miles) for two days to escape violence in Ndu, Bunyui's town. "When they come to the market, they shoot from every angle."
Tatah Oscar, 17, said he is a former fighter. He said many young Cameroonians are joining the separatists because their families have been killed by military "so they don't have somebody to count on again ... I am pleading on the government to try and solve the problem so that we the youths we can go back to school."
Col. Badjeck, however, said "Most of the time the terrorists operate and hide among civilians and the world has an impression that civilians are being killed, but our military is professional." In November last year, Cameroonian President Paul Biya declared the crisis a war. Biya was re-elected to his seventh term in October, although few votes were cast in war-torn Anglophone regions.
Politicians have repeatedly called on Biya to initiate dialogue to stem the violence. The 85-year-old president, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982, has repeatedly stated that Cameroon is one and indivisible and that he is not ready to negotiate.
The conflict poses a serious challenge for Cameroon, a close U.S. security ally in combating extremism and a new member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The United Nations have condemned both the Cameroon military and separatists for using unnecessary and excessive force and Amnesty International criticized the "horrific escalation of violence" in English-speaking regions.
Nearly a quarter-million more people have fled the ongoing violence, many leaving their homes on foot with their belongings teetering on their heads.