Dozens of kidnapped Cameroon students freed

Kidnappers freed scores of school children and a driver in western Cameroon early on Wednesday, but kept hold of a principal and one teacher, officials said, following an abduction blamed on anglophone separatists.

Students, aged 11 to 17, were abducted on Sunday in region beset by violence

School children who were kidnapped by armed men are pictured at a governor's office in Bamenda, Cameroon, after they were released on Wednesday. (Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters)

Kidnappers freed scores of school children and a driver in western Cameroon early on Wednesday, but kept hold of a principal and one teacher, officials said, following an abduction blamed on anglophone separatists.

Armed men who seized the youngsters on Monday in the city of Bamenda — a commercial hub of Cameroon's restive English-speaking region — released them about 18 kilometres away in the town of Bafut, the army said.

The scale of the incident — reports said 78 or 79 children were taken — was unprecedented in the country's long-running separatist crisis and the lack of information on the kidnapping from government officials fuelled confusion in the wake of their disappearance.

"I learned about the kidnapping on Facebook. I started praying for my daughter not to be among them," said Philo Happi, mother of a 15-year-old girl.

"I discovered she was kidnapped. I was crying. I was scared. (Now) the children have been found. I'm happy."

Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon who negotiated to free the children, said no ransom had been paid but gave no more details on the circumstances leading up to their release.

The students are helped to get into a truck by police in Bamenda on Wednesday. Two teachers remained in captivity on Wednesday as church officials continued pleading with kidnappers for their release. (Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters)

"The principal and one teacher are still with the kidnappers. Let us keep praying," he said, adding that one child had escaped on his or her own.

The freed children were unharmed although their clothes were dirty and they appeared exhausted, according to a Reuters witness.

Alain, 17, described how the kidnappers had taken them from school early Monday morning, forcing them to run and at one point cover their faces. They were not treated violently and received some food, he said.

Latest in series of kidnappings

Fonki and the Cameroonian military have accused anglophone separatists of carrying out the kidnappings, but a separatist spokesperson has denied involvement.

On Monday, Fonki described how another 11 children were taken by the same armed group on Oct. 31, then released after their school paid a ransom of 2.5 million francs ($5,700).

The secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against Biya's French-speaking government and its perceived marginalization of the English-speaking minority. The government has denied discriminating against them.

Cameroon's separatist movement turned violent in 2017 after a government crackdown on initially peaceful demonstrations by English-speakers. The linguistic divide is a legacy of a former German colony in central Africa that was divided between allies France and Britain at the end of the First World War.

The latest kidnapping, which recalled the 2014 abduction of more than 200 girls by Islamist Militant group Boko Haram in Chibok in neighbouring Nigeria, was criticized by human rights groups. 

Still, regional Gov. Deben Tchoffo said this week the government is providing adequate security for schools.

"I must insist that we have taken enough measures to protect schools, but we also need the assistance of all," Tchoffo said. "People should inform the military whenever they see strange faces in their villages."

But some parents of the kidnapped students said they weren't convinced. Several said they would be relocating their children to safer areas.

"How can he always talk of protection and security when our schools are torched every day, our children tortured and their teachers killed?" said Tah Pascal, a parent of one of the school children. "This is done in spite of the presence of the military."

With files from The Associated Press