Two children who were among dozens kidnapped by gunmen from their boarding school in Cameroon Monday are still missing, the school’s moderator told CNN, updating an earlier statement that all 78 students had been freed.
Rev. Fonki Samuel Forba, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, told CNN that authorities realized the two children were missing after the other children underwent interviews and medical checks.
“When we handed the children to their parents this evening, we learned two students are still with the kidnappers, and the principal and one teacher,” Forba said. On Tuesday, Forba said all 78 children had been freed.
Forba said the kidnappers had asked the students to tell if them if their parents had high-ranking government positions. “These two raised their hands. So they kept them,” he said.
The group of 42 girls and 36 boys was seized early Monday by gunmen, along with their principal, a teacher and a driver, from the Presbyterian Secondary School in Bamenda, in the northwest of the central African nation. One other girl managed to escape from the kidnappers.
The students were returned to the school with their driver at 9:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET) on Tuesday, teacher Vumesegah Peter Kogah said. A military truck then took them to the governor’s office.
Security officers who visited the school after the kidnapping took away the vice principal and another member of staff for interrogation, Forba said.
“They have not yet been released,” he said, adding, “I don’t know why they are keeping them.”
Vying sides trade blame
No one has claimed responsibility for the abductions, though vying sides have traded blame.
The kidnappers are “nothing other than the secessionists,” army spokesman Didier Badjeck said, referring to Anglophone separatist fighters calling for independence from Cameroon’s largely Francophone government.
At least two separatist groups, the Ambazonia Defense Forces and the Ambazonia Governing Council, have denied involvement in the kidnapping and suggested that the government had a hand in it.
Government forces took the students as a “mass distraction tactic” to divert attention from President Paul Biya’s inauguration Tuesday, Ambazonia Defense Forces spokesman Tapang Ivo Tanku said in a Facebook post.
Badjeck countered that the country’s defense and security forces helped the rescue operation, noting that regional authorities suspended the movement of non-emergency vehicles as military police and helicopters joined the hunt.
Separatist tensions date to post-colonial era
Anglophone separatist fighters have been accused of kidnapping students in the country’s north and southwest regions.
Seven students and a head teacher were kidnapped in September by armed separatists from their school in the town of Bafut, in the northwest of the country, Amnesty International said in a report.
The captives were “tortured and seriously injured” by their kidnappers before their release, the human rights group alleged.
An expert with Human Rights Watch has called for an independent investigation into the incident to stop all “attacks on education” in the West African nation.
“The competing narratives at play speak to the instrumentalization of this despicable crime for political purposes and highlights the need for credible, independent monitoring systems to be put in place,” emergencies researcher Jonathan Pedneault told CNN.
Violence in Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces is common.
People in these regions, who make up about 20% of the country’s population, say they have been marginalized by the country’s French-dominated educational and legal systems, which trace to Cameroon’s post-colonial era.
The “Anglophone problem,” as it is sometimes called, has escalated since 2017, when conflict broke out in the nation’s north and southwest regions between government security forces and Anglophone separatists.
Biya, 85, was sworn in this week for a seventh term and said he was working to restore peace in the country’s the troubled Anglophone regions.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that the destiny of our compatriots in the north-west and south-west lies within our Republic,” he said in his inaugural address. “I will strive to restore peace and calm in the two regions concerned, with due respect for the institutions of which I am the guarantor.”