Outraged global organisations are demanding an independent investigation following killings in Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest region where government troops are deployed.
The United Nations said it was “deeply concerned” while the Commonwealth and other rights watchdogs asked for an “impartial” investigation into incidents they called a massacre of civilians, including pregnant women and children.
Government troops have engaged separatist fighters in a bloody conflict as the latter fights to create an independent English-speaking state called Ambazonia.
While the rest of the world enjoyed Valentine’s Day last Friday, it was a rather ‘black Friday’ for the population of Ngarbuh village in the Donga Mantung Division where at least 30 people, including 15 children, were killed.
Opposition and human rights activists have blamed it on government troops.
Mr Nfor Kensah, a head teacher at a local government nursery and primary school, said 11 of those killed included two pupils in his school aged 5.
Three days following the incident, human rights lawyer and director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, said the death toll had reached 32 with some children and pregnant women still missing.
“The military officers responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice. These crimes clearly amount to crimes against humanity,” Agbor Balla said.
A UN spokesperson in a statement Monday said Secretary-General António Guterres was “deeply concerned” with the killings and has called on the Cameroon government to “conduct an investigation and to ensure that those responsible are held accountable”.
Stephane Dujarric said Mr Guterres has also told armed actors to “refrain from attacks against civilians and to respect international humanitarian and international human rights law”.
In a similar statement Tuesday, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said her organisation strongly condemns all forms of violence, and in particular, the loss of lives of innocent civilians including women and children.
“We noted the government announcement that there would be a full investigation into the incident. We encourage the government to conduct an impartial investigation, for perpetrators to be held accountable and for results to be made public,” she said.
Yaoundé has, however, downplayed the event and the casualties saying claims by organisations and activists are “outrageous and misleading.”
Communication Minister and government spokesperson Rene Emmanuel Sadi told a press conference in Yaoundé on Tuesday that a group of heavily armed individuals attacked government forces deployed for a ‘reconnaissance operation’ in the area.
The troops had been deployed in an area used as a “logistical base for the storage of illicit goods, arms and ammunition, as well as adulterated contraband products, narcotics and amulets” of secessionist rebels, he said.
Mr Sadi, who was accompanied by army spokesperson Colonel Cyrille Atonfack Guemo, said government forces responded to the attack, “neutralising seven assailants” and forcing the rest of the fighters out of the camp.
During the clashes, a fire broke out in a fortified shelter that contained explosives and flammable materials stored by the armed rebels and eventually reached nearby dwellings, causing deaths, Mr Sadi added.
“Our record of this incident indicates five deaths, one woman and four children,” he said.
This tragedy is the latest deadly incident in the two conflict-plagued English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of the central African country, where more than 3,000 people have died and at least 700,000 internally displaced, according to latest UN estimates.
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said almost 8,000 Cameroonians fleeing violence had entered Nigeria since the beginning of February, bringing the number of refugees to nearly 60,000.
The government, however, claims the figures have been inflated.
The Anglophone regions are home to most of the country's English speakers, who account for about a fifth of a population. The rest are French-speaking.
The Ngarbuh massacre as the recent killings is now being referred to happened less than a week after Cameroonians voted in joint municipal and legislative elections. The UN rights office had said the already tense situation in the anglophone regions had worsened ahead of vote.
Armed separatists vowed to disrupt the election and kill anyone who is seen voting in the troubled regions, but prior to the vote, Yaoundé deployed additional troops to ensure the security of voters.