Cameroon President Paul Biya will drop charges against 333 prisoners arrested for their alleged roles in a two-year separatist uprising with rebel leaders dismissed the move as a political stunt and pledging to keep fighting.
The announcement on Twitter came during peace talks launched by Biya to end fighting between insurgents and the military that killed more than 1 800, displaced over half a million and put a major dent in the economy.
The so called ‘national dialogue’ faltered before it began on Monday when separatist leaders would not participate because their demands were not met. It went ahead with politicians and other interested parties in attendance.
Thursday’s move was one of Biya’s largest concessions amid what is a major threat to his near 40-year rule.
“I have ordered discontinuance of proceedings pending before military tribunals against 333 people arrested for misdemeanours in connection with the crisis in the North-West and South-West Regions,” said Biya on Twitter.
Anglophone separatists, trying to form a breakaway state Ambazonia in the majority French-speaking country’s two minority English-speaking regions, said the amnesty did not go far enough.
The separatists called for the release of what they say is 5 000 people imprisoned since 2016, including 10 leaders sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges and withdrawal of Cameroon’s military from the affected regions.
“We will not accept an olive branch from someone whose troops are still in our territory,” said Ivo Tapang, a spokesman for 13 armed groups called the Contender Forces of Ambazonia. “We will intensify our struggle with guns and bullets.”
The insurgency emerged after a government crackdown on peaceful protests in 2016 in North-west and South-west regions by lawyers and teachers marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
In the following months, protests turned violent. By 2017, new armed groups were attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions. The army responded burning villages and shooting civilians, witnesses told Reuters.