79 kidnapped Cameroon students freed, says church official

Armed separatists kidnapped at least 79 students and three staff members from a Presbyterian school in a troubled English-speaking region of Cameroon, the governor said Monday. (Associated Press)

The 79 school children kidnapped by unidentified gunmen from a school in Cameroon have been released, but two of the three staff members abducted are still being held, said a church official.

“They were brought last night to one of our churches … near Bamenda (the regional capital). They look tired and psychologically tortured,” said the moderator of the country’s Presbyterian Church, Fonki Samuel Forba. The students are between 11 and 17 years old.

He pleaded with the kidnappers to “free the staff still in their keeping.”

The church leader said he had asked parents and guardians to take home all their children.

“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.”

He said the school previously had some students kidnapped which was resolved when the church paid a ransom of 2.5 million francs (about $4,000 dollars) to the armed gang. “We can no longer continue,” he said.

Cameroon’s northwest and southwest areas are beset by instability caused by armed separatists. Fighting between the military and separatists increased after the government clamped down on peaceful demonstrations by English-speaking teachers and lawyers protesting what they said was their marginalization by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority.

Hundreds have been killed in the past year and the separatists have vowed to destabilize the regions as part of the strategy for creating a breakaway state, which they say will be called Ambazonia. They have attacked civilians who do not support their cause, including teachers who were killed for disobeying orders to keep schools closed.

There have been kidnappings at other schools, but the group taken Sunday was the largest number abducted at one time in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The separatists also have set fire to at least 100 schools and driven out students and teachers from buildings taken over as training grounds.

The U.S. called for the immediate and safe return of the remaining hostages, according to Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary for U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs via Twitter.

“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,” he said. “…we urge all sides to end the violence and enter into broad-based reconciliatory dialogue without preconditions.”

The North West region 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,” said Tchoffo. “People should inform the military whenever they see strange faces in their villages.”

Tah Pascal, father of one of the kidnapped students, said he does not trust what the governor has said.

“How can he always talk of protection and security when our schools are torched every day, our children tortured and their teachers killed,” said Pascal. “This is done in spite of the presence of the military.”

Parents interviewed said they were relocating their children to safer areas.

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