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Cameroon Opposition Compromises on Protest Marking Riot Anniversary

Political opponents of Cameroon's President Paul Biya reached a compromise Monday over plans for a week-long demonstration marking last year's food riots in which they say security forces killed more than 100 people. Human rights groups will be allowed to have a memorial mass for those killed, but that they have agreed to cancel planned marches.

After meeting with the governor of Douala's Littoral Region, opposition leaders agreed to cancel plans for protest marches to lay wreaths where demonstrators were killed a year ago.

Instead, John Fru Ndi of the opposition Social Democratic Front and Anicet Ekane of the opposition Movement for Africa's New Democracy and Progress Party accepted the governor's offer to permit a requiem mass for those killed and visits to those still detained on charges of looting.

Thousands of people took to the streets last February, demonstrating against higher food prices and a change in the constitution that allows President Biya to extend his 26 years in power. The government says 40 people were killed when protesters battled security forces.

Madeline Afite of the human rights group Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture says security forces killed more than 100 people who were demonstrating peacefully.

Afite says the people of Cameroon now live in fear of a corrupt government that allows security forces to operate with impunity.

The Social Democratic Party's Albert Ngwana says life only has gotten harder in the year since the violence began in Douala.

"The political situation, the economic position, they are all going very bad," said Albert Ngwana. "They have gotten worse."

Ngwana says President Biya's decision to hand-pick a new electoral commission for the next election gives opposition parties little hope for a free and fair ballot.

"We were hoping that there would be an independent body elected to conduct elections, so we had hoped that we could change the government democratically," he said. "But then things have happened just the opposite way. Contrary to the law, the president went and selected his party people instead of competent men, and this has made the situation very infuriating. So I am not surprised that if there are demonstrations now, they may be worse."

Before the compromise with the Littoral governor, the opposition had planned week-long protests. And the government had assembled a heavy security presence in Douala to back-up its promise to prevent any demonstrations marking the anniversary of the riots.

The human rights group Amnesty International says last year's killings were part of what it says is a pattern of abuse by the Biya government, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and unlawful detentions.

Amnesty International's Godfrey Byaruhanga says the government has done nothing to hold security forces responsible for last year's bloodshed.

"None of the security forces that carried out these killings and wounded many others have been brought to justice," said Godfrey Byaruhanga. "There has not been an inquiry of any sort."

President Biya has acknowledged the economic conditions behind last February's violence, but he says "such discontent was exploited politically." As for changes to the constitution allowing him to run for office again in 2011, Mr. Biya says those revisions have removed a hurdle that he says challenged Cameroon's political future.