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Cameroon Releases MSF Health Workers Held After Helping Rebel Leader

FILE - A handout photo from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on Oct. 25, 2020, shows a medic treating a victim of a shooting at a bilingual school in Kumba, Cameroon.
FILE - A handout photo from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on Oct. 25, 2020, shows a medic treating a victim of a shooting at a bilingual school in Kumba, Cameroon.

Cameroon's military has released health workers detained for several days who were working for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. The military says the workers were helping a wounded rebel leader, who also was detained, and they are still being investigated. MSF has condemned the detentions, the latest incident between the group and Cameroon's military.

Cameroon's military alleged that MSF this week deliberately engaged in a clandestine operation to exfiltrate armed rebels.

In a statement, the military says Mbu Princely Tabe and Bessong Eugene, two self-proclaimed separatists generals contacted MSF Sunday to help fighters wounded in a battle with Cameroon government troops in Tinto, a southwestern farming village.

The statement by military spokesperson, Army Captain Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, says after a tipoff, an ambulance belonging to MSF was intercepted by the military in Nguti with Mbu Princely receiving treatment inside the ambulance. Nguti is a commercial town in Cameroon's English speaking Southwest region.

The military said one of the rebel generals, Bessong Eugene, died and was buried in the bush before MSF arrived to save the lives of wounded fighters.

Bernard Okalia Bilai, the governor of Cameroon's Southwest region, says he is surprised that MSF decided to help a dreaded self-proclaimed separatist general who was wounded in an armed battle with government troops. He says the dangerous fighter has killed many civilians and destroyed a great deal of property, including public edifices. Bilai says MSF was helping the criminal known by the Cameroon government troops as a terrorist to escape from the military.

Bilai said two MSF staff held by the military for questioning were released after two days but gave no further details.

MSF has denied it was helping any rebels to escape from the military. In a statement, MSF said Sunday the aid group contacted Cameroon military authorities and informed government troops of plans to transfer a wounded patient for medical assistance at Mutengene, another English-speaking southwestern town.

MSF says its ambulance was intercepted by government forces and taken to a different location. In the statement, MSF says it treats people based on medical need, regardless of their background or affiliations.

Felix Agbor Balla, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, says MSF is working in accordance with the Geneva conventions, which require people wounded in conflicts to be treated humanely without any adverse distinction based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any other similar criteria.

Balla says MSF cannot give the identities of all the people it is treating to the military as requested by the government.

"If Doctors Without Borders starts informing the government in detail of each and every patient, then the independence, the confidentiality is no longer there. Government is trying to put Doctors Without Borders in harm's way," said Balla. "I would recommend that Doctors Without Borders and the government should sit down and have a discussion. Government can criticize Doctors Without Borders, but we should not forget the wonderful work that Doctors Without Borders has been doing in this country."

MSF has been in Cameroon since 1984. The aid group gives medical assistance to people suffering Boko Haram atrocities in Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria. MSF provides surgical care, malaria treatment and treatment for COVID-19 patients in Cameroons restive English-speaking southwest region. The group says it treated more than a million patients in Cameroon in 2020.

In 2020, Cameroon suspended MSF from carrying out activities in the English-speaking northwest region. The government accused MSF of having close relations with separatists who are fighting to create an independent English-speaking state. The aid organization strongly denies the accusations and says its only goal is to save lives.

The U.N. says the separatist crisis that began in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2017 has killed more than 3,300 people and displaced 750,000, both internally and to neighboring Nigeria.