(YAOUNDE, Cameroon) – Armed separatists abducted at least 79 students and three members of a Presbyterian school in a troubled Anglophone region of Cameroon, the governor said Monday.
Governor Deben Tchoffo in the northwest of the country said the students were kidnapped on Sunday night, aged 11 to 17 years. They were taken from Nkwen, a village near the capital Bamenda, along with the school staff, which included the headmaster.
"It's a pity that this happens, that 79 of our children and three of their employees can be picked up by terrorists," Tchoffo said. "We have asked our military to do everything and bring the children back alive."
A video designed to show the abducted students was posted on social media by a group of men who call themselves "Amba boys." This is an indication of the state of Ambazonia, which armed separatists want to establish in the Anglophone Northwest and southwestern Cameroon.
In the video, men who identified themselves as kidnappers forced several boys to name their names and those of their parents. The boys also said that they were kidnapped by the armed men late Sunday and did not know where they were being held.
The men in the video said they would not release the students until the goal of creating a new state was reached.
"We will release you after the fight. They will go to school here now, "said the men. The video could not be independently verified, but parents said on social media that they recognized their children in the recording.
Fighting between the military and the separatists intensified after the government fought peaceful demonstrations by English-speaking teachers and lawyers protesting their alleged marginalization by the French-speaking majority in Cameroon.
Hundreds were killed last year.
The separatists have promised to destabilize the regions as part of the strategy of creating a breakaway state. They attacked civilians who did not support their cause, including teachers who were killed because they had not obeyed the order to keep schools closed.
There were kidnappings in other schools, but the group that was recorded on Sunday was the largest number that was abducted at once in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. The separatists have also set fire to at least 100 schools and displaced pupils and teachers from buildings that serve as practice sites.
"These terrible kidnappings show how the population in the Anglophone region is paying the highest price with the escalation of violence," said Samira Daoud, Deputy Regional Director of Amnesty International for West and Central Africa. "The kidnapping of schoolchildren and teachers can never be justified."
Amnesty International expressed its solidarity with the families of the students and called for "the Cameroon authorities to do everything in their power to ensure that all students and school staff are released without prejudice."
Last week, separatist activists attacked workers on a state rubber plantation in southwestern Cameroon, who allegedly cut off their fingers because the men refused to order them to stay away from the farms.
An American missionary died in the northwest near his capital Bamenda when he was shot in the head in the fight between separatists and soldiers.
The riots in Cameroon come about after President Paul Biya won a seventh term last month, which was described by the US as irregular. Biya, in office since 1982, will be inaugurated on Tuesday.