The seventy-nine students abducted by gunmen in a troubled English-speaking region of Cameroon have been freed, but two of the three staff members abducted with them are still being held, the country's communications minister told AFP last Wednesday.
The students, aged between 11 and 17, were brought to a church near the regional capital of Bamenda, said Fonki Samuel Forba, moderator of the country's Presbyterian Church. The kidnappings were the first such mass abductions seen in Cameroon and coincide with an upsurge of political tensions in the majority French-speaking country. The students were abducted by separatists who want to create a breakaway state called Ambazonia.
Forba said that parents and guardians of the students at the boarding school where the abductions occurred were asked to take them home.
"It is unfortunate we have to close the school and send home 700 children," he said. "Their security is not assured by the state and armed groups constantly attack and kidnap them."
A previous kidnapping from the school was resolved when the church paid a ransom of 2.5 million francs (about $4,000) to the armed gang. Forba said that this could not go on.
The group taken was the largest number abducted at one time in Cameroon's Anglophone regions. North West regional Governor Deben Tchoffo said this week that 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."
The parents who were interviewed said they were relocating their children to safer areas. The U.S. called for the safe return of the rest of the hostages via Twitter.
I’m encouraged by the release of the students kidnapped from the Presbyterian Secondary School of Nkwen near Bamenda, Cameroon. We call for the immediate and safe return of the remaining hostages— Tibor Nagy (@AsstSecStateAF) November 7, 2018
"We urge an immediate halt to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and burning of houses by Cameroonian government forces and to the attacks perpetrated by Anglophone separatists against security forces and civilians," Nagy said. "...we urge all sides to end the violence and enter into broad-based reconciliatory dialogue without preconditions."
The students' release comes a day after Cameroon's 85-year-old President Paul Biya was sworn in for a seventh term in office. Biya has promised to pursue policies of decentralization in English-speaking regions.
At the start of the school year in September, several secondary schools were attacked. More than 300,000 other have fled the violence, some crossing into neighboring Nigeria. Around a fifth of Cameroon's 22 million people are English-speaking-- a minority whose presence dates back to the colonial period.