BAFIA, CAMEROON - Cameroon's military has taken over two villages held hostage by separatists whom the government called terrorists.
The separatists had been collecting taxes, rendering justice in their courts and imposing prison sentences on people who refused to collaborate with them.
The separatists have killed at least eight soldiers and policemen over the past month in their campaign to break from francophone Cameroon and form a separate anglophone state called Ambazonia. They also aim to loosen President Paul Biya's long grip on power.
In the southwestern village of Bafia, one of those retaken, hundreds of people have returned, nearly two months after they fled.
Resident Enow Basile, 31, said he and about 100 villagers were arrested by the armed groups and detained at a local government school, where a man calling himself General Amstrong, leader of the group, had installed his headquarters.
"When you come, they tie your eye, they beat you up," he said. "If you don't have from 100 thousand francs ($180) and above, they promise to take your life, so people were paying." More than 100 people complied, he said.
"And they always attacked trucks that were transporting cocoa to Douala," Basile added. "They attack them, each pay 50 thousand francs ($90) to pay a pass, but if you don't pay, you will not pass. You don't take cocoa to Douala."
Muyenge, 10 kilometers from Bafia, was the other occupied village. Resident Ayuk Lucas said the invaders were sanctioning anyone who did not respect them.
"They even create a court. Everything. A whole government where they send to come and collect somebody and ask you to pay some money to them," he said.
Last week, Cameroon's military arrested 20 members of the armed group.
But the U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concern Wednesday, demanding an investigation into the deaths of at least 17 people killed in October 1 clashes between the security forces and those seeking a separate state. It said more than 500 people had been arrested, some of them from the hospital in the wake of the unrest, and it criticized Yaounde for not responding to several demands seeking information on those still being held.
Muyenge resident Ebune Francis said the armed separatists were expressing anger about what he described as the Cameroon government's neglect of English-speaking regions. He said he did not support secessionists but did support demands made by teachers and lawyers when they began a strike more than a year ago that later degenerated.
"We had been supporting the government, supporting the government. Nothing is coming, so we all are annoyed," Francis said. "We are abandoned by the government. We don't have water, sometimes we don't have electricity. You want us to be happy with the government? No."
The government has assured the population of the English-speaking regions that it will assure their safety.
Schools have been closed in most of the English-speaking northwest and southwest since November last year, when the lawyers and teachers called for a strike to stop what they said was the overuse of the French language.