8 Nov 2018

Kidnapped school children freed in Cameroon

12:03 pm on 8 November 2018

School children kidnapped from a boarding school in Cameroon's North-West region have met the regional governor after being freed.

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Photo: AFP

The 78 boys and girls and three others were seized early on Sunday in the region's capital, Bamenda.

A driver was also released, but the school's principal and a teacher are still being held.

The government has accused separatists in the English-speaking region of being behind the kidnapping.

The Anglophone separatists have denied they were involved.

The secessionist movement took up arms last year to demand independence for the North-West and South-West regions - the two English-speaking regions in a country where French is the most widely spoken official language.

The kidnapped students, aged between 11-17 years old, were "frightened and traumatised but in good shape", Rev Fonki Samuel, Presbyterian Church Moderator in Cameroon, told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

He said that they were being given food and being checked by the doctors before being reunited with their parents.

One of the hostages, 17-year-old Alain, said the kidnappers forced them to run after seizing them. He told Reuters news agency that they were not mistreated and the captors gave them food.

"They gave us kontchap [a mix of corn and beans] to eat... It was not enough but they still gave us some. They also gave us water," he said.

Rev Samuel said the Bamenda's Presbyterian Secondary School - where the students were seized - had been closed.

How were the children freed?

According to the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, the students were abandoned in one of their buildings in the town of Bafut, about 24km (15 miles) from Bamenda.

"The release was done peacefully... by unidentified gunmen. They [students] were brought into the church premises," Rev Samuel said.

"The first information we got from them [kidnappers] is their call and they were telling us they intended to release the children yesterday [Tuesday] morning... but unfortunately it rained so heavily that could not happen.

"So [on] the evening of yesterday, surprisingly and by God's grace, the children were brought back to us."

Rev Samuel told the BBC that 78 students, not 79 as earlier reported, had been released.

He also revealed that Sunday's kidnapping was the second such case at the school in less than a week.

In the earlier 31 October incident, 11 boys were taken and then released. It is unclear who the kidnappers were but the church paid a ransom of $4,000 (£3,000) to secure their release, he said.

The army had been deployed to try and find the children taken on Sunday.

Who was behind the kidnap?

Rev Samuel told the BBC he was not concerned about who was behind the kidnapping, only "overwhelmed and happy" that the schoolchildren had been freed.

He said, "armed groups, gangsters and thieves" could be taking advantage of the insecurity in the region to kidnap people, and blame it on the government and separatists.

Cameroon's authorities have blamed the kidnap on Anglophone separatist militias - who have called for schools in English-speaking regions to be closed.

They want to create an independent state called Ambazonia.

There have been a spate of kidnappings in the Anglophone regions at other schools but Sunday's incident involved the largest number abducted at one time, the AP reports.

It said that the separatists had set fire to at least 100 schools and taken them over as training grounds.

On Tuesday, anxious parents gathered at the Presbyterian Secondary School to try to get information about their children.

A video of the hostages released on Monday showed one of the captives saying they had been seized by "Amba Boys" - the widely-used term to describe the separatist rebels.

An Anglophone group, the Ambazonia International Policy Commission (AIPC), has however denied that the separatists were behind the kidnapping, noting that the person recording the video appears to have a poor grasp of Pidgin-English, the language spoken widely in the Anglophone area of the country.

One of the kidnappers was also apparently heard speaking French.

What is happening in English-speaking parts of Cameroon?

English-speakers in Cameroon have long complained that they face discrimination from Cameroon's Francophone majority.

They say that they are excluded from top civil service jobs and that government documents are often only published in French, even though English is also an official language.

Cameroon - still divided along colonial lines

  • Colonised by Germany in 1884
  • British and French troops force Germans to leave in 1916
  • Cameroon is split three years later - 80 percent goes to the French and 20 percent to the British
  • French-run Cameroon becomes independent in 1960
  • Following a referendum, the (British) Southern Cameroons join Cameroon, while Northern Cameroons join English-speaking Nigeria