DAKAR, Senegal — Numerous students were kidnapped from a boarding school early Monday in a part of Cameroon where separatists are waging a violent battle to break away and form their own country.
The students were kidnapped either late Sunday or early Monday from a Presbyterian boarding school in Nkwen, a small village not far from the northwestern city of Bamenda in one of Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions.
The total number of hostages, and who was behind the kidnappings, was unclear Monday afternoon.
Some media outlets reported as many as 80 students had been kidnapped, along with a principal and two other employees. A Cameroon military officer said the hostages numbered 20 students along with one teacher.
No one was killed during the kidnapping, officials said.
Separatists in Cameroon have been pushing for English-speaking regions to secede for decades, arguing that they lack political clout in the government, which is centered in French-speaking areas. Their movement was largely peaceful until about a year ago when security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters.
Violence in English-speaking regions of Cameroon has killed more than 400 civilians and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing across the border into Nigeria or into the forest. An American missionary was recently caught up in the violence and shot to death as he rode in his car.
Cameroon’s security forces have been accused of a heavy-handed response to the rebels, who are disorganized and carry homemade weapons. The military has burned dozens of villages and fired large caliber weapons indiscriminately, killing bystanders, according to human rights groups and numerous citizens.
Separatists have been accused of killing soldiers and carrying out violence against regular citizens who don’t support their actions.
Students have been caught in the middle during the upheaval. Many haven’t been in school for more than two years.
Separatists have long warned families to keep students at home as part of a so-called “ghost town” protest in which merchants and others were told to keep businesses closed.
Beyond the threats, the general violence in the area has kept some parents from sending children to school as they worried their sons would be wrongly accused by security forces of being members of separatist groups.
About three weeks ago some schools, including the one in Nkwen, reopened.
Military officials suspect someone working at the school in Nkwen acted as an accomplice to the kidnappers.
On Monday afternoon, factions of separatist groups laid blame for the kidnapping on each other, and on the government. Security forces blamed separatists. Disinformation has been a common theme throughout the conflict, and it was unclear exactly who was responsible.
Leaders of the Ambazonia Governing Council, which oversees one of the largest factions of separatists, issued a statement condemning the kidnappings, calling them “atrocious acts,” and suggesting they were orchestrated by a plant of the government.
The statement demanded the release of the schoolchildren and called on the government to remove troops from Anglophone regions.
Residents of English-speaking regions of Cameroon have long complained of government neglect and a lack of public resources.
In his 36 years in office, President Paul Biya, who was re-elected last month, and his representatives have sent French-speaking judges and teachers with poor English skills into the courts and schools of Anglophone regions.
Cameroon’s two official languages, French and English, are a remnant of a complicated colonial legacy dating to post-World War I when the League of Nations appointed France and England as joint trustees of what was then German Kamerun. Colonialists enforced their own cultures on each region.
During independence, many people in Anglophone regions felt they were treated unfairly and forced to become part of Cameroon.