Villagers in Cameroon's conflicted Northwest region claim military troops searching for rebels this past week killed at least 13 civilians, including children. Cameroon's military denies the allegations.
Cameroonian government officials and non-governmental organizations say several dozen civilians have fled Mbengwi, a commercial town in the English-speaking Northwest region to safer localities, including Bamenda, capital of the English-speaking Northwest region; Bafoussam, a French-speaking western town; and Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.
Peter Chefor escaped to Yaounde Saturday after his home was set on fire. He accuses Cameroonian troops fighting separatists in Mbengwi of burning down his home.
"When I looked through the window (of my house), I saw the military outside rough handling my son,” he said. “At that point, one of the military guys' legs was already on my son's head, so I shouted that he is my son, they should not kill him. He is not an Amba (separatist) fighter."
Chefor, his wife and two children now live with his younger brother in Yaounde.
Roman Catholic Church officials in Mbengwi say at least 13 civilians, including children, were killed and about 20 houses torched in Mbengwi over the past week. Mbengwi residents and rights groups say several youths were also arrested and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Rights groups have strongly criticized the civilian deaths, the arrests, the destruction of houses and other property, and looting.
The Cameroon military has denied that its troops are committing atrocities in Mbengwi.
Eyong Tarh, an official with the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, said the government should investigate and punish troops for what he calls retaliatory attacks on civilians accused of collaborating with separatist fighters.
"After eyewitnesses' testimonies, video evidence and satellite imagery, the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa in collaboration with the Cameroon Anglophone Database of atrocities, confidently attest or confirm that the burning of homes was caused by the defense forces (Cameroon military) and there is no way that can be refused or denied," Tarh said.
Tarh said it is unfortunate that civilians accused of collaborating with separatist fighters are either killed or have their houses burned by the military, while people accused of collaborating with the military are either killed or their houses burned by separatist fighters.
Ayaba Cho Lucas is Commander of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, ADF, a group that says it fights for the independence of the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. He refers to the state he and others hope to create as “Ambazonia,” and denies that separatist fighters are committing atrocities.
"Ambazonia is our land, our hope, it is our place of respite," he said. “You think if you burn our homes, you molest our children, they will give up. Make no mistake. We will turn the armored cars into dust. We will fight till the end."
Both the Cameroon military and separatist fighters accuse each other of attacking civilians.
Army spokesman Captain Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo said in a statement Monday that a reconnaissance mission was hit by an improvised explosive device and the military deployed troops to fight separatists on the road linking Mbengwi and Bamenda, both English-speaking northwestern towns.
Military officials said the army lost one tactical vehicle in the battle, and that four separatist fighters were killed.
The separatists say none of their fighters died and that at least seven government troops were killed last week when fighters destroyed a military armored car in Mbengwi.
Separatists have been fighting since 2017 to form an English-speaking state within the majority French-speaking country.
UN officials say the conflict has killed more than 3,300 people and displaced more than half-a-million.