Rights group calls for restraint on both sides of Cameroon's separatist conflict

·2 min read

The independent international organisation Human Rights Watch has urged authorities in Cameroon to protect civilians caught up in a conflict pitting the central African country's army against separatists in the west, denouncing atrocities committed by both sides.

More than 3,500 people have been killed and over 700,000 have fled their homes to escape the conflict that erupted in 2017 in Cameroon's English-speaking regions.

"Cameroonian security forces killed two civilians, raped a 53-year-old woman, destroyed and looted at least 33 homes, shops, as well as a traditional leader's palace in the Northwest region on June 8 and 9," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The organisation said it had interviewed several victims, their relatives and witnesses, as well as local journalists and civil society activists.

The alleged rape victim said her ordeal began when soldiers asked her and her husband where the separatist fighters were.

"We said we didn't know," she said, according to HRW. "They said my husband had a gun. We said we had no gun. They said they would kill us, and then one of them raped me."

Her husband's body was found three days later, shot in the mouth, HRW said.

Urgent need to protect civilian communities

"Cameroon's security forces have an obligation to lawfully counter attacks by armed separatist groups, and protect people's rights during periods of violence," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior researcher at HRW.

"But yet again, we learn that they have responded to the threat from separatist groups with attacks on civilians and serious human rights violations of their own."

The defence ministry declined to comment on the report.

The statement also detailed killings -- including of a 12-year-old boy -- and kidnappings carried out by separatist fighters.

The abuses by both sides in the conflict "highlight the urgent need to protect communities at risk and to hold those responsible for abuses to account," the statement said.

Other humanitarian groups including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have also raised the alarm recently about the risks faced by civilians.

Members of the English-speaking minority in the western provinces of Cameroon have long complained of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority and 88-year-old President Paul Biya, in power for 38 years.

Their demonstrations escalated into conflict in 2017.

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