Cameroon deployed heavily armed police and soldiers across the central African nation's restless English-speaking regions on Sunday to block protests called by activists including groups demanding independence, witnesses said.
The demonstrations — timed to take place on the anniversary of Anglophone Cameroon's independence from Britain — came as a months-old movement against perceived marginalization by the Francophone-dominated government gathered pace.
The protests, which began late last year, have become a lightning rod for opposition to President Paul Biya's 35-year rule.
Businesses were shuttered in the regions' main cities, Buea and Bamenda, where military helicopters circled overhead. The security deployment included troops from the Cameroonian army's Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR), a unit that typically fights Islamist Boko Haram militants in the country's north.
In Buea, police and soldiers rushed to the edge of the city early on Sunday and deployed water cannons to block a group of marchers arriving from a nearby town who chanted and waved the blue and white flag of the Ambazonia separatist movement.
"I now know that the Biya regime has been raising an army all these years to fight its own people," said one Buea resident, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal.
"We are simply fighting for our rights but the military, which is supposed to protect lives and property, has turned into our greatest nightmare," she said.
Authorities banned all gatherings of more than four people, ordered bus stations, eateries and shops to shut and forbade movement between different parts of the English-speaking regions. The government also ordered Cameroon's border with Nigeria closed for the weekend.
Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary on Sunday threatened to shut any media organizations that gave a voice to separatist groups.
"The media must not encourage those who advocate division, who want to destroy and destabilize our country," he told Reuters.
Police were positioned on rooftops and at key crossroads in Bamenda. Few residents emerged from their homes.
Major protests appeared to have been prevented there, but dozens of young men gathered in one street, whistling, brandishing improvised secessionist flags, and waving tree branches.
A military helicopter twice flew over the crowd, attempting to disperse them.
"We won't use violence unless there is major cause. There are numerous risks, even terrorist risks. We're keeping calm," a security source, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, told Reuters.
An improvised bomb wounded three policemen in Bamenda last week in what the regional governor called "a terrorist attack" and which a senior security source blamed on separatists.
Cameroon's divide has its roots in the end of World War I, when the League of Nations divided the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors.