DAKAR (Reuters) – Cameroonian soldiers opened fire on villagers during a weekend raid in the country’s southwest, killing up to nine people, including civilians, and injuring others, witnesses, health workers and a human rights lawyer said on Wednesday.
An army spokesman denied there were civilian casualties during the incident on Sunday in the village of Mautu in the South West region, home to a separatist insurgency. He called the accusation “propaganda”.
For four years the army has clashed with Anglophone separatist fighters among the forests and cocoa farms of western Cameroon. Over 3,000 people have died in the violence, which has intensified since the start of this year.
Sunday’s attack was described to Reuters by three villagers who said they fled into nearby cocoa plantations or cowered at home while soldiers rifled through their belongings.
They said they saw nine dead people, including a child and an old woman. None of the dead were separatist fighters, they said.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was treating four people from the village, all with gunshot wounds: a young child, two elderly patients and a young woman.
“This incident is the latest in a significant upsurge in violence since the year began,” said Gisa Kohler, MSF’s emergency coordinator in South West Cameroon.
Unverified videos shared by sources with knowledge of the attack showed several dead bodies with gunshot wounds, including a woman and a child laid out on a bamboo stretcher, as well as several young men.
“This is an unconventional conflict,” said human rights lawyer Agbor Balla, who said he had confirmed at least eight deaths in Mautu on Sunday, based on his own sources.
“Civilians were killed. It was done by the military. We don’t know if others killed were separatists.”
In a statement on Monday, the military said it was conducting a raid on separatist positions when it came under fire and had killed what it labelled “terrorists”. It did not say how many died.
In response to Reuters questions about the incident, army spokesman Atonfack Guemo on Wednesday dismissed the witness accounts.
“Small terrorist groups and their foreign supporters have engaged in a battle of disinformation. We will not give in,” he said.
The army has struggled to uproot the insurgency, which is made up of dozens of small armed groups and has become a thorn in the side of President Paul Biya’s 40-year rule.
The violence in Mautu comes as three soldiers face trial for their alleged involvement in the killing of 21 civilians last year in a village in the North West region.
The separatists have committed their own abuses, including attacks on police and the army, and school kidnappings.
Louis, a cocoa farmer, said he was sitting outside when the soldiers opened fire in Mautu.
“Bullets were flying everywhere,” said Louis, who like other witnesses did not want to use his last name for fear of reprisal. “They chased me into the bushes and kept shooting.”
Fellow resident Enow said he was in a church meeting when the gunfire began. He ran into the surrounding bushes and hid.
Not everyone got away. One 60-year-old farmer was at home when soldiers broke down his door searching for fighters and weapons. They found neither, and smashed his television, he said.
None of the witnesses said they saw separatists that day. They all said that a woman and her young granddaughter were killed by the military.
“They were people I knew,” the farmer said. “What have they done that they can be killed in this way?”
(Reporting by Edward McAllister, Editing by Joe Bavier and Rosalba O’Brien)