Gunmen in military fatigues and masks killed 22 people in a village at the heart of a separatist insurgency in western Cameroon, shooting women and children and burning others in their homes, the UN said.
Cameroon’s army has since 2017 been fighting English-speaking militias seeking to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia amid the cocoa farms and forests of west Cameroon. As fighting intensifies so have abuses by both sides, witnesses and rights groups say.
The fighting is the gravest threat to stability in the oil- and cocoa-producing country since President Paul Biya took power nearly 40 years ago.
It was not yet clear who was responsible for Friday’s attack in Ntumbo. In a statement, separatists blamed the army. In its own the statement, the army denied wrongdoing.
Survivors “were extremely shocked and traumatised. People left their houses and everything behind,” said James Nunan, an official with the UN humanitarian co-ordination agency OCHA that conducted interviews with witnesses and survivors.
Nunan said 14 of the dead were children, some under five. At least 600 people fled, he said.
The type of attack, with people being burned alive and shot, echoes other raids witnesses told Reuters were committed by the military. The army denied involvement.
Government said soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission in Ntumbo when they were attacked. The fighting that followed saw several fuel containers explode and set houses ablaze killing five civilians.
“In light of methodically and professionally cross-checked information, it is an accident, collateral damage of the operation to restore security in the region,” government said in a statement.
The separatists said at least 35 civilians were killed in what they called a “violation of the human rights of the Ambazonian people.”
Conflict between Cameroon’s army and English-speaking militias began after government cracked down on peaceful protesters by lawyers and teachers in 2016 complaining of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
Violence spiked again in the run-up to parliamentary elections on February 9, rights groups said, including burning houses.
Nearly 8 000 Cameroon refugees fled to eastern and southern Nigeria in the first two weeks of February, the UN refugee agency said, adding to the more than half a million people already gone.