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Violent Unrest in Northwest Cameroon as Strike Tensions Simmer

Violent unrest broke out in northwestern Cameroon after gendarmes shot dead a teenage boy on Monday. The unrest points to the continued tensions in the country’s two English-speaking regions, even after President Paul Biya ordered the release last week of 55 detainees in a bid to reopen dialogue and resolve the nine-month strike.

Hundreds of people shouted and ran to seek refuge Monday evening at the cathedral in Cameroon’s northwestern town of Kumbo amid the unrest.

Christopher Tatah, one of the local residents leading people to the church, says some of the people had run several kilometers from a neighboring village called Kifem.

"Everybody was at home, respecting the ghost towns until these gendarmes provoked the people," said Tatah. "They wanted to steal goods and then somebody sounded a whistle, and people came out, and then there was shooting. The people of Kumbo have hoisted the flag of southern Cameroon and are waiting for the population to come and join them.”

VOA saw the white and blue flag of the separatist movement flying in Kumbo. Residents said the flags had also been raised in other communities and that the military was going around Tuesday to remove them.

The spark for the unrest was the killing early Monday of a 17-year-old boy in the village of Kifem.

In an official statement, Cameroon’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo, said the boy was shot accidentally after villagers attacked gendarmes with locally made guns, wounding one of the gendarmes. The defense minister said the gendarmes were in Kifem on an anti-drug operation and that they opened fired in self-defense.

Residents say the gendarmes seized the teenager’s corpse and paraded it through the streets. A school and government buildings were burned in protest. Local media report that a second person was killed early Tuesday as violence continued. VOA could not independently verify that report.

Adolph Deben Tchoffo, the governor of the northwest region of Cameroon, visited Kumbo Monday night. He told VOA the highest ranking government official in the town was wounded by the angry crowds, but is responding to medical treatment.

The defense ministry says the commander of the gendarmes in Kumbo has been dismissed over the unrest.

Schools were to reopen in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions after being sealed in November when the strike began. English speaking lawyers and teachers were demanding reforms to address what they described as the overbearing influence of French in the bilingual country.

Separatist groups soon joined the movement, ratcheting up tensions. Those groups are demanding full independence to resolve what they say is the marginalization of the country’s anglophone minority.

Activists are demanding the release of another 20 people detained over the strike before talks can restart.

President Paul Biya has said that he will engage in no dialogue that threatens national unity.