DAKAR, Senegal – Violent tensions between Cameroon's government and Anglophone separatists have forced more than 180,000 people from their homes since December, Human Rights Watch said Thursday in a new report that blames both sides for "grave abuses" against civilians.
Warnings about Cameroon's crisis are growing as the Central African nation faces an October election in which 85-year-old President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, says he will run again.
The human rights situation in the largely French-speaking country where Anglophone separatists seek an independent state has taken a deadly turn since late 2016 and "could still get much worse," said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "International action is needed to ensure that both sides protect civilians and ensure justice for crimes against them."
Among the dozens of victims interviewed for the report was a man who described finding his 69-year-old mother's remains among the ashes of his home after a military operation in the northwest. While his wife and children fled his mother had been unable to follow, he said.
Cameroon's northwest and southwest have faced unrest since 2016, when teachers and lawyers held demonstrations demanding respect for the region's English education and justice systems. The government responded with force, and though an agreement was reached with lawyers and teachers' unions last year, armed separatists emerged seeking an English-speaking state.
As the separatists, described by the government as "terrorists," began attacking schools to enforce a boycott, some Anglophone activist groups declared an independent state of Ambazonia.
In response, government forces have "killed civilians, used excessive force against demonstrators, tortured and mistreated suspected separatists and detainees and burned hundreds of homes in several villages," the Human Rights Watch report says, also citing satellite imagery.
"Despite the abuses and provocations by armed separatists, the government should never be attacking civilians and burning villages," Segun said. Human Rights Watch wants Cameroon to give independent monitors and the United Nations human rights office access to the troubled regions.
Biya has authorized investigations, and his government last month announced a plan to rebuild more than 10,000 homes affected by the violence.
In response to the new report, the government condemned separatist attacks and defended its security forces, saying all alleged atrocities are investigated. Just because such investigations "are not always widely disseminated to the public does not in any way mean that they are not taken," it said.
Cameroon's security forces also are under scrutiny for their response to a separate threat from Boko Haram extremists in the north. After a video emerged last week showing uniformed men blindfolding two women with small children strapped to their backs and shooting them as suspected Boko Haram supporters, Amnesty International experts said Cameroonian forces appeared to be involved. The government denied it.
Amid the expressions of shock and outrage, the United States said it was "gravely concerned" and called on Cameroon to investigate.
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