Authorities in Cameroon arrested three soldiers for their role in an alleged deadly attack on civilians in a village near where the military is fighting a separatist insurgency.
Soldiers killed three women and 10 children in Ngarbuh village in February and then tried to cover up their actions by torching parts of the community, the government said in a statement.
Other soldiers on the mission will face disciplinary proceedings, it added.
“After an exchange of fire the detachment discovered three women and 10 children died as a result of their actions. In panic, the three soldiers tried to mask the facts by lighting fires.”
Previously, in the immediate aftermath of the February clashes, government said soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission in Ngarbuh when they were attacked. The fighting that followed saw fuel containers explode and set nearby houses ablaze, it said, killing five civilians.
The latest findings, the result of an investigation, come amid mounting pressure from the UN and rights groups. The UN earlier said 22 people were killed including 14 children, based on interviews with survivors, according to James Nunan, an official with the UN humanitarian co-ordination agency OCHA. At least 600 people fled, he said.
Human Rights Watch put the toll at 21 and said soldiers deliberately carried out the killings, including burning people in their homes.
Anglophone rebels in the northwest and southwest called for a split from the country for decades, but fighting escalated since 2017 as support for secession grows and armed groups appear.
Witnesses of past clashes told Reuters of army abuses but the army denied wrongdoing.
The fighting, often in remote villages surrounded by cocoa farms and forests, is one of the greatest threats to President Paul Biya’s government during his nearly 40 years in power.
Conflict between Cameroon’s army and English-speaking militias began after government cracked down violently on peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers in 2016. They complained of marginalisation by the French-speaking majority.