Thousands of Cameroonians have fled the country's anglophone provinces, the United Nations and activists said on Monday, after separatists sparked fears of an escalation in violence with a call for "dead city" protests.
Cameroon's armed forces have been battling a separatist movement since 2017 in fighting that has killed nearly 2,000 and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
A military court in Cameroon on Tuesday handed a life sentence to the head of the country's anglophone separatist movement, Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, in a move that analysts said could inflame the 22-month-old revolt.
The "dead city" protests -- bringing cities to a standstill -- are one method used by anglophone separatists, who chafe at perceived discrimination in education, law and economic opportunities from the francophone majority.
"For a few days, we have seen a large number of people who have left the cities of Bamenda, Kumba and Buea, there are thousands of them, but it is difficult to give an exact number," said James Nunan, director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in both regions.
He said it was difficult to say whether the protest call triggered the movement, but in the past "dead city" lockdowns had seen many people leave and return when the protests were over.
In Bamenda and Buea, local activists and witnesses also confirmed the movement.
"I am leaving Bamenda because of the lockdown protest called by the separatists," said Ernest Okoche Bui, who was lining up outside a travel agency. "I'll see what happens before I come back."
Anglophones are mainly concentrated in two western areas, the Northwest Region and the Southwest Region, which were incorporated into the French-speaking state after the colonial era in Africa wound down six decades ago.