YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Authorities in Cameroon said they have arrested three soldiers for their role in an alleged deadly attack on civilians in a village in the west of the country where the military is fighting a separatist insurgency.
Soldiers killed three women and 10 children in the northwestern Ngarbuh village in February and then tried to cover up their actions by torching parts of the community, the government said in a statement on Tuesday.
Several other soldiers involved in the mission will face disciplinary proceedings, it added.
“After an exchange of fire...the detachment discovered that three women and 10 children died as a result of their actions. In panic, the three soldiers...tried to mask the facts by lighting fires.”
Previously, in the immediate aftermath of the February clashes, the government said that its soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission in Ngarbuh when they were attacked. The fighting that followed caused several fuel containers to explode and set nearby houses ablaze, it said, killing five civilians.
The latest findings, the result of an investigation into the incident, come amid mounting pressure from the United Nations and rights groups. The U.N. in February said that 22 people were killed, 14 of whom were children, based on interviews with survivors, according to James Nunan, an official with the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency OCHA. At least 600 people fled, he said.
Human Rights Watch put the toll at 21 and said the soldiers deliberately carried out the killings, including by burning people in their homes.
Anglophone rebels in the northwest and southwest regions have called for a split from the country for decades, but fighting has escalated since 2017 as support for secession grows and armed groups appear.
Witnesses of past clashes have told Reuters of army abuses here but the army had denied any wrongdoing.
The fighting, often in remote villages surrounded by cocoa farms and forests, has been one of the greatest threats to President Paul Biya’s government during his nearly 40 years in power.
Conflict between Cameroon’s army and English-speaking militias began after the government cracked down violently on peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers in 2016 who complained of marginalization by the French-speaking majority.
Reporting by Josiane Kouagheu; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Aurora Ellis