Armed men in Cameroon kidnap 79 school children

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Armed men kidnapped 79 children from a school in western Cameroon on Monday and a local pastor said separatist militias were responsible.

FILE PHOTO: A Cameroonian elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) member walks past a burnt car while patroling in the city of Buea in the anglophone southwest region, Cameroon October 4, 2018. Picture taken October 4, 2018.REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

The abduction happened before dawn in the city of Bamenda in the English-speaking Northwest region. The children, their principal and a driver were taken into the bush outside town, military and government sources said, and the army had started searching the area.

Anglophone secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against President Paul Biya’s French-speaking government and its perceived marginalization of the English-speaking minority.

A separatist spokesman denied involvement in the kidnapping.

“In total 81 people were kidnapped including the (school) principal. They were taken to the bush,” a military source told Reuters.

An army spokesman confirmed the abduction but declined to say how many were taken. He said it was most likely to have been carried out by separatists. The separatist spokesman blamed government soldiers.

Samuel Fonki, a reverend for the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, told Reuters that he is moderating for the release of the children. He said the separatists were responsible.

“They say I have to close the school. They asked for a ransom,” he said, though no amount was specified.

The separatist movement gathered pace in 2017 after a government crackdown on peaceful demonstrations. One of the original gripes was that French-speaking teachers were being deployed to English-speaking schools in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

Violence intensified in 2018, including during an army crackdown in which civilians were killed. Many people have fled Bamenda and other centers to seek refuge in more peaceful Francophone regions.

Reporting By Josiane Kouagheu; Writing by Edward McAllister and Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg