More than two dozen people have been killed in one of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, local sources said on Saturday, although the exact circumstances of their deaths were not immediately clear.
The incident in the town of Menka in Cameroon’s Northwest Region is one of the deadliest since armed secessionists from the English-speaking minority launched an insurrection last year against the predominantly Francophone central government.
Agbor Balla Nkongho, a local human rights lawyer and activist, told Reuters that at least 34 bodies were found on Friday in Menka. He declined to say who had killed them.
Another local source who visited Menka on Saturday and asked not to be named said she saw a total of 29 bodies, including three outside a school, riddled with gunshot wounds. Some were women and others boys as young as 13, she said.
The bodies “are rotting already and reek,” she said.
Army spokesman Colonel Didier Badjeck said in a statement to local media that government troops surrounded a hotel in Menka on Friday morning after they were tipped off to the presence of separatist rebels.
A long firefight ensued and “several terrorists were neutralised”, Badjeck said, without providing further details.
A representative for the separatists did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Armed conflict erupted last year in Cameroon’s Anglophone Northwest and Southwest Regions after the government violently repressed peaceful protests begun in 2016 against perceived marginalisation of English speakers.
Cameroon’s linguistic divide harks back to the end of World War One, when the League of Nations divided the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors.
Dozens of people have been killed since late last year – including more than 20 soldiers and police ambushed by the separatists – and tens of thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring Nigeria.
The United States and rights groups have accused the Yaounde government of burning down villages and carrying out targeted killings in the Anglophone regions, charges the government has angrily denied.
The latest violence comes just months ahead of an election in which President Paul Biya, who has ruled the Central African oil producer for the last 35 years, is expected to stand for a fresh term.