YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon — Ninety children kidnapped at a school in a troubled English-speaking region of Cameroon have been freed, officials said on Wednesday, revealing that in addition to 79 students whose abduction had already been announced, 11 schoolmates were seized last week.
All are enrolled at the Presbyterian Secondary School in Bamenda, capital of Cameroon’s Northwest Region — one of two areas where surging anglophone separatist militancy has been met with a brutal crackdown by authorities.
Communications Minister Issa Bakary Tchiroma said “all 79 students” seized on Monday “have been released,” without giving details of the circumstances under which they were set free.
The students were kidnapped with their principal, a teacher and a driver, but Tchiroma said their fate was not yet clear.
Separately, the Presbyterian Church, which runs the school, said that 11 other pupils were taken on October 31 but they have now been freed.
News of their disappearance had been withheld to enable negotiations with the kidnappers, the church said.
It said the school, located on the outskirts of Bamenda where there is a negligible presence by the security forces, would remain shuttered “until further notice”.
On Tuesday, a leading member of the church, Reverend Foki Samuel Forba, said he had been negotiating with the kidnappers, who were not demanding a ransom but the closure of the school.
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 release was announced a day after Cameroon’s 85-year-old President Paul Biya was sworn in for a seventh term in office.
A six-minute video seen by AFP on Monday, but which could not be confirmed independently, showed 11 boys apparently aged about 15 giving their identity and name of the school in English, and adding that they were abducted by the “Amba Boys” — a name for anglophone separatists.
Unprecedented in Cameroon
Such mass kidnappings were previously unknown in Cameroon, although they are notorious in neighboring Nigeria.
The Islamist group Boko Haram snatched more than 200 schoolgirls from Nigeria’s Borno state town of Chibok in April 2014, sparking worldwide condemnation and the #FreeOurGirls movement on Twitter.
Some 107 girls have since been released or found, but the Islamist group abducted scores more schoolgirls from the neighboring Yobe state in February this year.
Cameroon’s Biya on Tuesday promised to pursue policies of decentralization to address “frustrations and aspirations” in English-speaking regions.
It was his first public acknowledgement of resentments that have spilled over in the country’s anglophone Northwest and neighboring Southwest Region.
In 2016, anger at perceived discrimination in education, the judiciary and the economy fanned demands for autonomy in the anglophone regions.
But Biya refused any concessions and a year later, radicals declared an independent state — the “Republic of Ambazonia” — taking up arms soon after.
Separatists have since attacked troops and police, boycotted and torched schools and attacked other state symbols, prompting a severe official crackdown.
At the start of the school year in September, several secondary schools were attacked, a headmaster was killed and a teacher was badly wounded.
At least 400 civilians and more than 175 members of the security forces have been killed in the year to September, according to a toll compiled by non-governmental organizations.
More than 300,000 others 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.