Douala (AFP) – Twelve European tourists have been freed after being taken hostage in western Cameroon, where anglophone militants are campaigning for an independent state, the government said on Wednesday.
The group of seven Swiss and five Italians “were taken hostage by a band of armed terrorists” in the Southwest Region before being rescued by troops on Monday in a “special operation,” the communications ministry said in a statement.
Separately, six municipal councillors in the neighbouring Northwest Region — another seat of anglophone unrest — were also released in operations that saw “tens of assailants neutralised, huge stocks of weapons and ammunitions as well as large quantities of drug(s) seized,” it said.
Cameroon’s government is fighting insurgents demanding a separate state for the two regions.
They are home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of the predominantly French-speaking population.
– Legacy of colonial era –
The Europeans, members of an organisation called the African Adventure Group, were seized in the area of Moungo-Ndor while they were heading for a tourist site called the Twin Lakes, the ministry said.
The lakes, lying in volcanic craters, have special significance in the local traditional religion, and are deemed to represent the male and female genders.
The statement did not say when the group, or the municipal councillors in the Northwest Region, had gone missing.
The anglophone question in Cameroon is a legacy of the colonial period in Africa.
France and Britain divided up the former German colony under League of Nations mandates after World War I.
A year after the French-ruled territory became independent in 1961, the southern part of British Cameroons was integrated into a federal system, scrapped 11 years later for a “united republic”.
In recent years, agitation has risen among anglophones, chafing under the perception that they suffer prejudice at the hands of the francophone majority, especially in the judicial system and education.
But demands for a return to the federal structure were rejected by the government.
In a spiral of radicalisation, the breakaway movement issued a symbolic declaration of independence for “Ambazonia,” their name for the putative state, on October 1.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya met the revolt with a crackdown, including curfews, raids and restrictions on travel.
Unrest has increased in recent weeks, with attacks on security forces and civilians and a spate of kidnappings of officials, and new groups are spawning within the separatist movement.
The clashes have prompted around 33,000 people to flee to neighbouring Nigeria.
The latest violence comes on the heels of visits to the Northwest and Southwest regions last month by Cameroon’s newly-appointed interior minister, Paul Atanga Nji, himself an anglophone.
He said he brought “a message of dialogue, a responsible dialogue, a dialogue with those who know that Cameroon is one and indivisible”.