Officials in Cameroon say armed separatists have chased several thousand children from schools just days after the students returned to classrooms for the first time in years. Troops sent to restore school security in the western regions say they have killed at least 13 rebels in clashes over the last month.
Cameroon's military says separatist attacks this month on western villages, mostly on schools, sent thousands of schoolchildren, teachers and villagers fleeing for safety.
Lingalla Prudence is among students who on Monday fled Kumbo, an English-speaking town in the Northwest Region. The separatist conflict has disrupted her education so often that the 21-year-old, who should be in college, is still trying to finish high school.
"We were in school, and some people brought guns and chased us out of the school and kidnapped some teachers and all the children are out of school," she said.
Teachers' associations say the anglophone rebels are targeting state schools, which they view as a tool of the French-speaking majority's rule. But they are also attacking religious and private schools.
Joe Tiemuncho, coordinator of the Parent-Teachers Association for Presbyterian schools in Cameroon, said separatist attacks and threats have shut down scores of schools that had reopened, some for the first time in years, when the school year started on September 5.
"Many schools have shut down given the intimidations that are coming from separatist fighters," he said. "Teachers, learners and school managers are afraid to get into full-swing activities because it is unpredictable, you can't say what will happen in the next few minutes. Some teachers have even had their arms amputated. Students have been kidnapped and they [fighters] continue to kidnap teachers, students and others asking for ransom."
Cameroonian military spokespersons weren't allowed to speak with reporters on a trip to the area, but they did confirm that hundreds of troops were deployed to restore security so classes can resume.
The military says the separatists also declared a lockdown in the English-speaking western regions that paralyzed trade. Separatists that declared the lockdown say it is in response to a government ban on community schools that the rebels control.
Capo Daniel, a self-declared deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), one of the largest rebel groups in Cameroon, said the ADF is not in favor of the lockdown called by other rebel factions.
"Misguided forces that are imposing this lockdown target [on] innocent civilians who have largely rejected this lockdown. So, for the most part, our people stay at home out of fear," he said. "It is the responsibility of everybody who speaks for the Ambazonia liberation movement to ensure our students access community schools, religious schools and private schools that have been allowed and authorized by us to open."
Cameroon in August closed more than 200 community schools that rebels said they controlled.
The military says in the past week troops killed at least 13 rebels during clashes in the towns of Kumbo, Oku and Ndop.
Rebel spokesman Daniel confirmed their fighters were killed and said they also killed government troops.
Cameroon's military did not confirm any fatalities but said a few troops were wounded.
Cameroon's anglophone rebels want to create a breakaway state they call Ambazonia, separate from Cameroon's French-speaking majority. The U.N. says the rebel conflict has killed more than 3,300 people and displaced more than a half-million since fighting broke out in 2017.