YAOUNDE, Cameroon – Separatist militants attacked workers on a state-run rubber plantation in restive southwestern Cameroon, chopping off their fingers because the men had defied an order to stay away from the farms, authorities said Friday.
The attack is the second of its kind in less than a week by the militants, who have responded violently to a government crackdown on separatist activities in the English-speaking parts of the country.
David Epie, a 43-year-old worker at a rubber plantation, says armed men attacked him and three of his co-workers on Thursday evening.
"I do not know the fate of one of our workers who tried to escape and was shot on the leg," said Epie, who lost several fingers. He bled as we fled when the attackers were leaving."
South West governor Bernard Okalia Bilai said he has ordered the military to chase and arrest the separatists blamed for the two recent attacks on rubber plantation workers. On Monday, seven workers lost fingers when militants hacked them off at a plantation in the town of Tiko.
"We cannot allow groups of terrorists to continue to disturb the peace we badly need in this region," he said. "They are going from farm to farm, terrorizing farmers and workers ... they must pay for the crimes they are committing."
Cameroon was once divided between British and French colonial powers. English speakers make up 20 percent of the population and have long complained of being marginalized by the French majority.
Those grievances erupted into conflict in 2016 when militant separatists took up arms following a series of protests by teachers and lawyers who cited discrimination in their fields of employment.
The militants have vowed to destabilize the English-speaking regions of Cameroon to win independence for the areas. Earlier this week an American missionary died in another restive part of the country after he was shot in the head amid fighting between armed separatists and soldiers in northwestern Cameroon.
The separatists consider the state-run banana, palm oil and rubber plantations in southwestern Cameroon to be legitimate targets. Vehicles, tractors, buildings and warehouses owned by the state's Cameroon Development Corporation have been torched and some staff members have been kidnapped.
Meanwhile, 10 separatist leaders appeared in court Thursday in the capital of Yaounde, the first time they have been seen in public in Cameroon since their arrests 10 months ago in neighboring Nigeria. The suspects include Ayuk Tabe Julius, the man who proclaimed himself president of what he called the English-speaking republic of Ambazonia.
The Cameroonian government has called them terrorists and said they would answer for their crimes under a 2014 anti-terrorism law which says that anyone who uses weapons against the government will face a military tribunal. If convicted on such charges, they could face the death sentence.
Defense counsel John Nsoh says the suspects have been deprived of their right to communicate with their lawyers.
"They were abducted — they were not even arrested — taken from a foreign country and brought into Cameroon and detained incommunicado for more than 10 months," he said.
The turmoil in Cameroon comes as President Paul Biya, who has led since 1982, easily won a seventh term last month in an election that the United States says was marked by irregularities. The government did away with presidential term limits several years ago, part of a trend in Africa that has dismayed many.