Cameroon's President Paul Biya acknowledged that soldiers killed three women and 10 children in a February massacre that they then tried to cover up by torching houses and blaming rebels.
Biya's office released a statement Tuesday saying three troops were arrested for the killings in the northwestern village of Ngarr-buh. Several other troops were expected to face disciplinary hearings for the killings, which led at least 600 of the villagers to flee to the capital, Yaoundé.
A spokesman for the Ngarr-buh villagers in Yaounde, Innocent Laban, welcomed Biya's admission that the military was responsible.
"This declaration comes to confirm the fact that the Cameroonian military is so unprofessional. A military that is killing the people rather than protecting them," Laban said. "This comes to show us that human rights activists are doing a good job. I think the government should tender a serious apology to these human rights groups for soiling their dignity, and those unscrupulous fellows in the military should be given maximum sanctions."
Ngarr-buh villagers say that Cameroonian troops raided their village and killed dozens of people the night of February 14. Rights groups and the United Nations condemned the attack, which they say left at least 21 people dead, 14 of them children.
Officials initially denied that the military committed any atrocity, calling it propaganda from anglophone rebels and supporters to discredit their troops. Authorities had said rebels attacked a military scouting mission in the village and that the counterattack accidentally caused fuel containers to burn nearby houses.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher for central Africa with Human Rights Watch, said punishing the military for the massacre marks a step in the right direction, but added that investigations are needed into other crimes committed during Cameroon's conflicts.
"It is very good first step because there are other abuses and crimes that have been committed in the anglophone regions and beyond by both the security forces and armed groups and these crimes deserve the same level of attention and inquiry that we saw with the Ngarr-buh massacre," Allegrozzi said via a messaging application from London. "We also welcome president Biya's call for increased collaboration with human rights groups and we wish that this represents a change in the way government views human rights organizations."
Cameroon's Ministry of Defense says Biya's admission of the military's blame for the massacre shows that abusers will always face justice.
"The resilience of the Cameroon defense and security forces is intact. There is no perfect army in the world. Cameroonian defense and security forces, if they commit deviant acts during operations, they are tried in military courts and they do not go unpunished," said Human Resources Director Colonel Joseph Ajang Sone.
It is not the first time Cameroon has admitted its troops committed atrocities in its fight against anglophone rebels and the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Cameroon arrested seven soldiers in 2018 suspected of executing two women and two children two years earlier while fighting Boko Haram. The arrests followed the circulation online of two videos that appeared to show Cameroonian troops carrying out the killings, and ongoing pressure from rights groups for justice.