BAMENDA, Cameroon (Reuters) - Kidnappers freed scores of school children and a driver in west Cameroon early on Wednesday, but kept hold of a principal and one teacher, officials said, following an abduction blamed on anglophone separatists.
Armed men who seized the youngsters on Monday in the city of Bamenda - a commercial hub of Cameroon’s restive English-speaking region - released them about 18 km (11 miles) away in the town of Bafut, the army said.
The scale of the incident - with some 80 children taken - was unprecedented in the country’s long-running separatist crisis and a lack of official information fueled confusion in the wake of their disappearance.
“I learned about the kidnapping on Facebook. I started praying for my daughter not to be among them,” said Philo Happi, mother of a 15-year-old girl.
“I discovered she was kidnapped. I was crying. I was scared. (Now) the children have been found. I’m happy.”
Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon who negotiated to free 78 children, said no ransom had been paid but gave no more details on the circumstances leading up to their release.
“The principal and one teacher are still with the kidnappers. Let us keep praying,” he said, adding that one child had escaped on his or her own.
The freed children were unharmed although their clothes were dirty and they appeared exhausted, according to a Reuters witness.
Alain, 17, described how the kidnappers had taken them from school early Monday morning, forcing them to run and at one point cover their faces. They were not treated violently and received some food, he said.
“They gave us kontchap (a mix of corn and beans) to eat,” he said. “It was not enough but they still gave us some. They also gave us water.”
Army spokesperson Didier Badjeck said the kidnappers released the children after the military found out their location. Two other children were still missing, along with the principal and teacher, he said. Reuters was not able to independently verify if children were still missing.
Fonki and the Cameroonian military have accused anglophone separatists of carrying out the kidnappings, but a separatist spokesman has denied involvement.
On Monday, Fonki described how another 11 children were taken by the same armed group on Oct. 31, then released after their school paid a ransom of 2.5 million CFA francs ($4,400).
The secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against Biya’s French-speaking government and its perceived marginalisation of the English-speaking minority. The government has denied discriminating against them.
Cameroon’s separatist movement turned violent in 2017 after a government crackdown on initially peaceful demonstrations by English-speakers. The linguistic divide is a legacy of a former German colony in central Africa that was divided between allies France and Britain at the end of World War One.
The latest kidnapping, which recalled the 2014 abduction of more than 200 girls by Islamist Militant group Boko Haram in Chibok in neighboring Nigeria, was criticized by human rights groups.
Writing by Tim Cocks and Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Alessandra Prentice and Marie-Louise Gumuchian