Twelve European tourists are safe and sound after being briefly held in western Cameroon, where anglophone militants are campaigning for an independent state, their Italian travel agency said Wednesday.
The tour group, made up of Swiss and Italian nationals, was seized on Monday by armed men “who carried out checks on documents and their vehicle,” the African Adventure agency said in a statement.
“Through negotiations with the group they allowed us to leave,” later in the day, the travel agency added.
However just as they were about to depart, “Cameroon special forces arrived” and a “brief engagement” ensued, the statement added, without giving details.
“No one was subjected to violence and all the participants in the group are well,” the African Adventures agency said in a statement.
Earlier Cameroon’s communications ministry said the group of seven Swiss and five Italians “were taken hostage by a band of armed terrorists” in the Southwest Region before being rescued by troops on Monday in a “special operation”.
The released tourists were taken back to the capital Yaounde where they were met by Cameroonian officials as well as Swiss and Italian diplomats.
– ‘Tens of assailants neutralised’ –
Separately, six municipal councillors in the neighbouring Northwest Region — another seat of anglophone unrest — were also released in operations that saw “tens of assailants neutralised, huge stocks of weapons and ammunitions as well as large quantities of drug(s) seized,” it said.
Cameroon’s government is fighting insurgents demanding a separate state for the two regions.
They are home to most of the country’s anglophones, who account for about a fifth of the predominantly French-speaking population.
The 12 tourists were seized in the area of Moungo-Ndor while they were heading for a tourist site called the Twin Lakes, the ministry said.
The lakes, lying in volcanic craters, have special significance in the local traditional religion and are deemed to represent the male and female genders.
One of the main armed separatist groups, the Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF), played no part in the tourists’ abduction, its leader Cho Ayaba told AFP.
Two other foreigners, a pair of Tunisian engineers, were abducted in the troubled region on March 15.
One of them died during an army rescue operation on March 20 — “killed by his abductors”, according to the military’s account, which said “four terrorists died in the operation”.
– Legacy of colonial era –
The anglophone question in Cameroon dates back to the colonial period in Africa.
France and Britain divided up the former German colony under League of Nations mandates after World War I.
A year after the French-ruled territory became independent in 1961, the southern part of British Cameroon was integrated into a federal system, scrapped 11 years later for a “united republic”.
In recent years, agitation has risen among anglophones, chafing under the perception that they suffer prejudice at the hands of the francophone majority, especially in the judicial system and education.
But demands for a return to the federal structure were rejected by the government.
In a spiral of radicalisation, the breakaway movement issued a symbolic declaration of independence for “Ambazonia”, their name for the putative state, on October 1.
President Paul Biya met the revolt with a crackdown, including curfews, raids and restrictions on travel.
Unrest has increased in recent weeks, with attacks on security forces and civilians as well as a spate of kidnappings of officials, and new groups are spawning within the separatist movement.
The clashes have prompted around 33,000 people to flee to neighbouring Nigeria.
The latest violence comes on the heels of visits to the Northwest and Southwest regions last month by Cameroon’s newly-appointed interior minister, Paul Atanga Nji, himself an anglophone.
He said he brought “a message of dialogue, a responsible dialogue, a dialogue with those who know that Cameroon is one and indivisible”.