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More Arrests Hit Cameroon as Language Divide Intensifies

FILE - A blackboard with translations of French phrases into the Kanuri language is seen at a Cameroonian military base in Kolofata, Cameroon, March 16, 2016.

In Cameroon, a months-long strike by English-speaking professionals has snowballed into a movement calling for greater autonomy or even, some say, independence for Anglophone parts of the country.

The government, however, opposes such talk, and tensions continue to mount.

A group of seven youths forced a soldier in Ekona, a town in the southwest region, to acknowledge the existence of two banned groups, the Southern Cameroon National Council, or SCNC, and the more recently created Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, or CACSC.

The CACSC says its president, Balla Agbor, and its secretary general, Fontem Neba, were arrested late Tuesday and taken to a police detention camp in Buea, the capital of the southwest region. The CACSC says hundreds of supporters of the group have also been arrested.

Prior to their arrest Tuesday, Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma held a news conference, saying Cameroon will not tolerate threats to national unity.

"The head of state has affirmed without any ambiguity that the unitary form of the state is intangible and Cameroon is one and indivisible and shall so remain,” Tchiroma said. “There will, therefore, be no federalism nor secession."

English-speaking lawyers and teachers have been on strike since October, protesting what they say is the overbearing use of French in public life. Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, but public documents are released only in French and most officials speak little or no English, even in areas where English is the designated language.

Among the unions’ original demands was for Cameroon to return to the system of federalism it abandoned in 1972.

Those striking professionals have been joined by other groups, including the SCNC, which was founded in 1995 to seek full independence for the two English-speaking regions.

The CACSC and SCNC say English-speakers are treated as second-class citizens. The government accuses these groups of hijacking the ongoing strike to further their own political interests.

Several demonstrations have degenerated into violence, and talks to end the strike are at a standstill. The government has banned public meetings and, earlier this month, authorities shut down a radio station in the northwest after it held an on-air debate on the strike.

Organizers have responded with a "ghost town" strategy, calling on people in English-speaking parts of the country to simply stay home. They held another "ghost town" exercise this week, bringing commerce and transport in some areas to a grinding halt.