23.04.2020 Cameroon

Cameroon admission over massacre 'positive': UN, rights groups

Troops in the north of the country have been fighting against English-speaking separatists for two years.  By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)
LISTEN APR 23, 2020
Troops in the north of the country have been fighting against English-speaking separatists for two years. By ALEXIS HUGUET (AFP)

Cameroon's admission that its troops were involved in a February massacre of civilians in a volatile region is a positive move, the UN and rights groups said, despite claims that the official version was a whitewash.

The government had previously denied any role in the February bloodshed in the Northwest region, where English-speaking separatists have been fighting government forces for the past two years.

According to the United Nations, the death toll in clashes on the night of February 13-14 left 23 civilians dead, including 15 children in the village of Ngarbuh.

It said nine of the children were under age five and that two of the victims were pregnant women.

In a statement on Tuesday, the president's office said three soldiers and a vigilante group stormed a separatist base, killing five, before "discovering that three women and 10 children were killed" when a container containing fuel exploded.

"Overcome with panic, the three soldiers helped by some members of the self-defence group tried to hide the incident by setting fires," the statement said, calling it an "unfortunate accident."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called Cameroon's admission a "positive step" but said those responsible should be "held fully to account in a fair and transparent judicial process."

The UN, France and the United States have questioned the version that the deaths were caused by an accidental oil explosion.

Human Rights Watch said the admission was a "first step" but much more needed to be done.

Cameroon has been ruled with an iron fist by decades by ageing President Paul Biya, who rights groups accuse of stifling democracy and protests.

Rights groups have accused both sides of atrocities in the conflict, which has left more than 3,000 dead, closed schools and clinics and forced 700,000 people to flee their homes.

HRW had published a damning report on February 28 fingering the army and an allied militia for the deaths.

"The fact that an investigation was launched and that the results of this probe acknowledged the role of some soldiers and were published seems to have been a real effort on the part of the government," Lewis Mudge, HRW's director for central Africa, told AFP.

Cameroonian rights group Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa said the "acknowledgement of government responsibility for the Ngarbuh massacre is unprecedented.

"This acknowledgment should not be the end, but instead open doors for further investigations into similar atrocities committed," it said.

However a grouping of 26 local NGOs said 31 corpses had been discovered of which 14 were those of children.

"The whole truth has not emerged as our figures are different," said Blaise Chamango, an official from the coalition.

HRW also puts the toll higher at least 21. It said witnesses reported seeing 10 to 15 soldiers and at least 30 others during the raid.

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