The president of Cameroon demanded Anglophone separatists lay down their arms, a day after dozens of schoolchildren were seized in a kidnapping the army blamed on rebels.
Assailants kidnapped 79 children, their principal and a driver from a school in Bamenda in Northwest Region, military and government sources said.
“They need to know they will face the rigour of the law and the determination of our defence and security forces,” President Paul Biya said in an inauguration speech. He was re-elected last month, extending his 36-year-old rule.
“I appeal to them to lay down their arms,” he told the national assembly, without mentioning the kidnapping.
A separatist spokesman denied involvement and said government soldiers staged the kidnapping to discredit insurgents. Clashes began more than a year ago, killing more than 400 civilians and forcing thousands from their homes.
An army spokesman blamed separatists for the kidnapping, which had an echo of the 2014 abduction of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram in Chibok, although there are no known links between the militant movements.
Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said he was mediating with the kidnappers for the children’s release. He said separatists were responsible.
He added another 11 school children were kidnapped by the same armed group on October 31, but the school paid a ransom for their release of 2.5 million CFA francs ($4,400).
A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week, an American Baptist missionary was shot dead in an area that has seen fighting between the army and separatists in Bamenda.
The secessionists imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their rebellion against the French-speaking government, which they say marginalises the English-speaking minority.
The search for the children continued on Tuesday. Some 200 parents gathered outside the school, waiting to hear if their children were among those abducted or remained unharmed at school.
Authorities denied parents access to the school, according to six parents and a security guard who spoke to Reuters TV.