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Cameroon releases 333 prisoners amid peace talks; separatists say not enough

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon’s President Paul Biya said he will drop charges against 333 prisoners arrested for their alleged roles in a two-year separatist uprising, but rebel leaders dismissed the move as a political stunt and pledged to keep fighting.

FILE PHOTO: Cameroonian President Paul Biya casts his ballot while his wife Chantal watches during the presidential election in Yaounde, Cameroon October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

The announcement on Twitter on Thursday comes during peace talks launched by Biya to end fighting between insurgents and the military that has killed more than 1,800 people, displaced over 500,000 and put a major dent in the economy.

The so called ‘national dialogue’ faltered before it began on Monday when separatist leaders said they would not participate because their demands had not been met. It went ahead anyway, with politicians and other interested parties in attendance.

But Thursday’s move represented one of Biya’s largest concessions yet amid what has become a major threat to his near 40-year rule.

“I have ordered the discontinuance of proceedings pending before Military Tribunals against 333 persons arrested for misdemeanors, in connection with the crisis in the North-West and South-West Regions,” said Biya on Twitter.

Anglophone separatists, who are trying to form a breakaway state called Ambazonia in the majority French-speaking country’s two minority English-speaking regions, on Thursday said that the amnesty did not go far enough.

The separatists have called for the release of what they say is 5000 people imprisoned since 2016, including 10 leaders who were sentenced in August to life in prison on terrorism charges, and the withdrawal of Cameroon’s military from the North-west and South-west 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 late in 2016 in the Northwest and Southwest regions by lawyers and teachers who complained of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.

In the following months, protests turned violent. By 2017, newly formed armed groups were attacking army posts in the Anglophone regions. The army responded by burning down villages and shooting civilians, witnesses have told Reuters.

The oil, cocoa and timber-producing nation was among Central Africa’s most stable until a few years ago. But, in addition to the separatist uprising, it also faces a insurgency by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist movement, which has spilled over from Nigeria into its northern territory.

Reporting By Josiane Kouagheu and Edward McAllister; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Kirsten Donovan