FILE - Cameroon troops watch for separatists in Cameroon's northwest region, Bamenda, Cameroon, May 24, 2019.
FILE - Cameroon troops watch for separatists in Cameroon's northwest region, Bamenda, Cameroon, May 24, 2019.

BAMENDA, CAMEROON - Separatists in Cameroon's restive English-speaking regions have freed a prominent Catholic archbishop they kidnapped Tuesday. 

Archbishop Cornelius Fontem Esua says he was abducted by separatist fighters in a locality called Njinikejem while on a trip to preach peace in regions where a separatist war has raged for the past two years.

"The road was blocked," he said. "I stood there for sometime, some boys came in and said, 'No, you cannot go, you should go back.' They gave me the number of a certain general [commander of separatist fighters]. They called and said, 'Let me talk to him.' He said, 'No, you cannot pass, it has been blocked.' I came down, I removed the barrier and I passed. The boys came, about 5 or 6 of them very aggressively shouting, 'Who do you think you are,' mishandled my driver. 'No, we are taking you to our camp.'"

Esua says he was taken to the bush with four of his companions. He says they were not physically assaulted while in captivity.

The archbishop says he told the hundreds of youths and the man who called himself the general commanding separatist forces in the area that they should stop killing, maiming and abducting people whom they say they are trying to liberate.

"I told them, 'You are making people to suffer.' I said we cannot achieve anything good with evil. Thou shall not kill, thou shall not make other people to suffer. People whom you pretend to be fighting for are suffering. I told them a lot about education. Get the schools open," he said.

Esua says they listened to him, and replied that they were fighting to save their land and people. He says he was asked to leave after more than 13 hours in captivity; he did not say if a ransom was paid for his release.

Previous abductions

It was not the first time clergy have been abducted by the English-speaking separatists, who want to break away from Cameroon's French-speaking majority. 

The Catholic Church says dozens of its nuns and priests have been kidnapped and released.  Many believe the church paid to secure their release, an allegation the church denies. 

Security analyst Eugene Ongbwa, a consultant with Cameroon's NGO Ecumenical Service For Peace, says the separatists have not been killing priests because the Catholic Church has preached against abuses by the government, and has called on the central government to listen to the fighters.

When the crisis began, separatist fighters kidnapped and killed missionaries and foreign workers to put pressure on the international community to force the government of Cameroon to grant their requests, Ongbwa said, adding that separatists seem to have dropped that option. The archbishop's life may have been spared because he has been neutral, though vocal, about the need for the government to listen to the separatists, Ongbwa said.

The Catholic Church says at least nine clergy members have been killed, including American-born Charles Wesco, who died in Bamenda in crossfire with separatist fighters, and Kenyan-born Cosmas Omboto Ondari, who was shot in the southwestern town of Mamfe in a crossfire incident last November.