YAOUNDE (Reuters) - A group of European tourists traveling in southwest Cameroon were not kidnapped, their Swiss tour operator said on Wednesday, contradicting government reports that separatist militants had held them hostage.
Speaking on state television late on Tuesday, government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said 18 hostages had been taken on Monday and were freed hours later by the army’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion.
He said the group included seven Swiss and five Italian tourists as well as six Cameroonian municipal officials, who were taken by English-speaking separatists in the restive southwest region.
However tour group African Adventures said its clients had simply been stopped on Monday by a group of armed individuals who carried out a check of their documents and vehicles.
“Our negotiation carried out with this group resulted in their granting our permission to leave,” the tour operator said in a statement on its website.
“Shortly before our departure, Cameroon army force special forces arrived on the scene and a brief engagement followed,” it added, without elaborating.
None of its group was subjected to violence and all were doing well, the company said.
The Ambazonian Defence Force (ADF), the main anglophone separatist group battling state security forces, had earlier denied the government version of events.
“ADF does not take hostages. ADF arrests enablers and collaborators and does not arrest foreign nationals,” Cho Ayaba, a leader of the Ambazonian Governing Council, to which the ADF is loosely affiliated, told Reuters.
The ADF has been responsible for most of the shootings that have killed more than 20 state security agents in a year-long uprising against President Paul Biya’s francophone government that they say has marginalized the English-speaking minority.
However, a number of smaller armed groups have emerged in recent months in reaction to a government crackdown that has included razing villages in rural anglophone Cameroon near the Nigerian border.
Writing by Aaron Ross and Joe Bavier; Editing by Edward McAllister and Robin Pomeroy