YAOUNDE, Cameroon – Cameroon's national day Sunday was marked by violence in its troubled English-speaking region, with two policemen killed, soldiers wounded and a mayor kidnapped by suspected armed separatists.
In the capital, Yaounde, in central Cameroon, President Paul Biya, who has ruled since 1982, presided over a public show of the country's military might.
But in the English-speaking town of Bangem in southwest Cameroon, the mayor, Ekuh Simon, was kidnapped. In a video shared by suspected armed separatists Simon said he and his deputy were kidnapped by separatists for planning independence celebrations. He said he is being held hostage by the Ambazonia Restoration Forces that had said the national day should not be celebrated. Ambazonia is the name separatists have given to the English-speaking area they want to become independent from French-speaking Cameroon.
Fighting was also reported in the English-speaking towns of Konye, Batibo, Ekona and several villages of Kupe Muanenguba, an administrative area in southwestern Cameroon.
At least two policemen and several people were killed, according to the governor of the south west region Bernard Okalia Bilai. In the towns that were attacked, many escaped to the bushes and safer neighboring towns.
In the northwestern city of Bamenda, there was a strong show of force to prevent any violence, but only a few residents turned up for the celebrations, saying that they feared retaliation from the separatists. Some students at the University of Bamenda showed up for the parade, saying they were forced by officials to come under the penalty of expulsion. Government officials also said they were also forced to come.
The Cameroon government had asked the population to come out in numbers and celebrate the national day as a sign of national unity adding that the military will protect the people from armed separatists who had vowed the day will not be celebrated in the English-speaking regions.
Cameron again imposed a curfew on its English-speaking regions. In spite of the curfew and heavy presence of the military, the armed separatists were able to chase out some public officials and close some schools.
Both the government and separatists have committed abuses, according to the U.S. ambassador. Ambassador Peter Henry Barlerin last week met with Biya and urged the president to initiate dialogue to lead the way out of violence.
"On the side of the government, there have been targeted killings, detentions without access to legal support, family, or the Red Cross, and burning and looting of villages. On the side of the separatists, there have been murders of gendarmes, kidnapping of government officials, and burning of schools," said Barlerin in a statement issued after he met with Biya. "People on both sides of the conflict have engaged in speech that dehumanizes the opposite side."
International humanitarian organizations and rights groups have accused the government of harsh measures in its crackdown and the indiscriminate arrests of suspects.
Unrest in Cameroon began in November 2016, when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the northwest and southwest regions took to the streets, calling for reforms and greater autonomy. They expressed frustration by the dominance of the French-speaking parts of the country and with what they charged is the marginalization of Cameroon's Anglophone population. Cameroon's English-speaking community accounts for about one-fifth of the country's 25 million people.
The protests were followed by a harsh government crackdown, including arrests and a shutdown of the internet.
The crisis intensified when Ayuk Tabe, who declared himself the president of the English-speaking Republic of Ambazonia, was arrested in December with 48 others in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They have not been seen in public since. The separatists are demanding his immediate release.
The separatists have chased many government workers and forced the closure of man schools, timber and palm oil processing factories. They vowed on social media to paralyze the country until they Ayuk Tabe and his colleagues are released.
Parts of southwest Cameroon remain under a curfew because the separatists continue to commit atrocities, said Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of the Southwest Region
"The gunmen are hiding in the bushes, in the forests and usually they would appear on the roads to try to kidnap some passengers," said Bilai. He said security information indicates most of the armed separatists are hiding in the bush along Cameroon's southwestern border with Nigeria, especially in the Manyu and Lebialem administrative areas.
AP journalist Joel Kouam in Bamenda, contributed to this report.