YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Small children were among at least 22 people killed in weekend fighting between separatists and the military in northwestern Cameroon, residents said.
The government acknowledged some of the deaths occurred when a fuel tank exploded in the fighting, causing a fire that burned homes and killed a woman and four children.
Civilians have suffered for years in the conflict between separatists and the military in the Central African nation’s English-speaking North West and South West regions.
The latest deaths occurred Friday in the North West village of Ngarbu, residents said.
Bruno Ngeh, a 38-year-old teacher who escaped the attack, said he lost many family members including his wife’s aunt and her eight children. He said the military was responsible for the killings.
“Little babies, pregnant women were killed. How do you explain this?” he asked. “They never knew that they will be killed in their sleep by the very military that is supposed to protect them.”
Ngeh called on the international community to pressure the government to end the fighting in Anglophone regions that has claimed more than 3,000 lives since 2017.
Fleeing villagers said they saw armed men dressed in Cameroon military uniforms carrying out the latest attack.
Samuel Ikome Sako, who calls himself interim president of the Republic of Ambazonia, the state claimed by the separatists, blamed the military for the deaths of civilians.
“Our own people are living in forests like animals,” he said. “This is wickedness, this is genocide going on. We are losing hundreds per day.”
Cameroon’s government said in a statement that eight members of the security forces carried out a raid in Ngarbu the night of Feb. 14 against separatists.
Defense Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rene Claude Meke said told state broadcaster CRTV the military has been professional in its fight against the separatists.
“We need of the support of the population in these difficult moments,” he said. “They should come to us, inform us and strictly respect orders and advice we give to them so that this crisis which has overstayed should come to an end.”
In January, Cameroon said it deployed at least 1,000 additional troops to the English-speaking regions ahead of the Feb. 9 local council and parliamentary elections that separatist fighters had vowed to disrupt. Since then, there have been several attacks on suspected separatist strongholds.
The United Nations humanitarian office in Cameroon has called for immediate investigations into the latest attacks. Human Rights Watch has blamed both government troops and separatist fighters for gross human rights violations in the conflict.
The unrest broke out in English-speaking regions in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of the French language and French-speaking officials. Rebels took up arms a year later, demanding a separate English-speaking state.
Some civilians have fled the clashes, saying they don’t believe the government can protect them.
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