GENEVA: The UN called on Cameroon Tuesday to conduct an independent investigation into the “shocking” killing of 23 villagers in a troubled English-speaking region and to ensure the perpetrators be held accountable.
Citing information from UN colleagues on the ground, the UN rights office said that two pregnant women and 15 children – nine of them under the age of five – were among those killed in Friday’s attack, which opposition parties blamed on members of the armed forces.
“We urge the authorities to ensure that the investigation is independent, impartial and thorough, and that those responsible are held fully to account,” it said in a statement.
The UN had previously put the toll from Friday’s attack at up to 22, but Tuesday’s statement said 23 people had died in the “shocking episode”.
Witnesses had told the UN that around 40 armed men, including members of the security and defence forces, had attacked the village in Cameroon’s Northwest Region – one of two English-speaking regions grappling with separatist violence since October 2017.
According to the witness testimony, the attack saw the men “opening fire on people and burning down houses”, the rights office said.
Cameroon’s army on Monday denied charges that members of the armed forces were responsible for the deaths in the Ngarbuh district of Ntumbo village, describing the event as “quite simply an unfortunate accident, the collateral result of security operations in the region”.
The authorities said people inside the village had attacked security forces “with the exchange of shots igniting a fire that affected several dwellings”, according to the UN statement.
The tragedy marks only the latest deadly incident in the two conflict-plagued English-speaking regions – the southwest and northwest – where more than 3,000 people have died and at least 700,000 have fled their homes in the past two and a half years.
English-speakers account for nearly a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 24 million, who are majority French-speaking.
Years of grievances at perceived discrimination snowballed into a declaration of independence in October 2017 and a government crackdown.
“We call on the Government to ensure that the security forces abide by applicable international law norms standards during the conduct of their operations,” Tuesday’s statement said.
“We similarly remind armed separatist groups of their responsibilities under international law and call on all parties to refrain from deliberate attacks on civilians,” it added.
The UN rights office said the already tense situation in Cameroon’s anglophone regions had worsened ahead of this month’s parliamentary and municipal elections.
“The Government deployed some 700 additional troops in the North-West and South-West where armed separatists reportedly kidnapped dozens of candidates, most from the Social Democratic Front which is one of the country’s biggest opposition parties,” the UN said.
While most of the candidates had since been released, the UN said it had also received information that voting centres and the homes