Cameroon leader tells separatists to down arms after child kidnappings

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon’s president demanded on Tuesday that anglophone separatists lay down their arms, a day after dozens of schoolchildren were seized in a kidnapping the army blamed on the rebels.

Assailants kidnapped 79 children, their principal and a driver from a school in Bamenda in Northwest Region, military and government sources said.

“They need to know that they will face the rigor of the law and the determination of our defense and security forces,” President Paul Biya said in an inauguration speech. He was re-elected last month, extending his 36-year rule.

“I appeal to them to lay down their arms,” he told the national assembly, without mentioning the kidnapping.

A separatist spokesman denied involvement and said government soldiers had staged the kidnapping to discredit the insurgents. Clashes began more than a year ago, killing more than 400 civilians and forcing thousands from their homes.

An army spokesman blamed separatists for the kidnapping, which had an echo of the 2014 abduction of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram in Chibok, in neighboring Nigeria, although there are no known links between the two militant movements.

Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said he had been mediating with the kidnappers for the children’s release. He said separatists were responsible.

He added that another 11 school children had been kidnapped by the same armed group on Oct. 31, but that the school had quietly paid a ransom for their release of 2.5 million CFA francs ($4,400).

A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. State Department condemned the Presbyterian school kidnappings and called for the immediate safe return of students and staff.

“We urge an immediate halt to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and burning of houses by Cameroonian government forces and to attacks perpetrated by ... anglophone separatists,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, calling for a dialogue to end the conflict.

Last week, an American Baptist missionary was shot dead in an area that has seen fighting between the army and separatists in Bamenda.

The secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their rebellion against the French-speaking government, which they say has marginalized the English-speaking minority.

The search for the children continued on Tuesday. Some 200 parents gathered outside the school, waiting to hear if their children were among those who had been abducted or had remained unharmed at the school.

Authorities denied parents access to the school, according to six parents and a security guard who spoke to Reuters TV.

Reporting by Josiane Kouagheu; additional reporting by Blaise Eyong in Bamenda; writing by Juliette Jabkhiro; editing by Tim Cocks, Robin Pomeroy and Tom Brown