DAKAR, Senegal — Dozens of students kidnapped from a boarding school in a restive region of Cameroon were freed late Tuesday after being held hostage for about two days, according to local and military officials.
The circumstances of the mass kidnapping were mired in confusion, but more than 70 teenage students were dropped off at the campus of their Presbyterian Secondary School by masked men around 11 p.m., said Samuel Fonki, a pastor in Bamenda who works with the school.
He added that no ransom had been paid for the release of the children, who were taken sometime Sunday or Monday from their campus in Nkwen, a small village outside Bamenda, where separatists are waging a violent battle for independence from Cameroon.
Mr. Fonki said the students all appeared healthy and were immediately taken to security forces for questioning. He said a teacher and a principal were still being held captive, but military officials indicated that all hostages were freed. It remains unclear who abducted the hostages, but the military said they had been abandoned by their captors after the area was sealed off by soldiers.
The area where the kidnappings occurred is one of two English-speaking regions in the country where various factions of separatists want to form their own nation, Ambazonia. The decades-long quest for secession turned violent about a year ago, after government soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters.
Separatists say they are fighting to overturn years of poor representation in the government, which is centered in the French-speaking capital. The dual official languages are a remnant of a complicated colonial past in which both France and Britain imposed their own cultures on the regions.
President Paul Biya has been in power for 36 years, centralizing authority with loyalists in the capital, and he was sworn in for his seventh term in power on Tuesday.
The military’s response to the separatists, a largely ragtag group of local fighters who use homemade guns and take orders from leaders living abroad, has been heavily criticized by human rights advocates.
Soldiers have burned dozens of villages to the ground, and scores of innocent civilians have been caught in the violence. More than 400 people have been killed and tens of thousands of people have fled to neighboring Nigeria or into the forest.
Even as news of the student kidnappings spread, it was unclear exactly how many students had been taken or who had abducted them. Parents complained that they were not certain if their children had been taken hostage because no official list of names was published, according to news reports.
Separatists accused the government of orchestrating the kidnapping in an effort to turn people against them, a charge that government officials denied. At least one major faction of separatists condemned the kidnappings.
Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group operating hundreds of miles to the north in border areas with Nigeria, has used mass kidnappings of students as a tactic to terrorize the population, but it is not suspected of being behind the Presbyterian school kidnappings in Cameroon.
But kidnappings of local officials and regular citizens have occurred in recent months in the English-speaking region’s conflict, with officials blaming separatists who target people not adhering to their declared boycotts of schools and shops. Separatists hoped those so-called ghost towns would put pressure on the government by curtailing economic activity in the area.
The conflict has been particularly hard on students, many of whom have been kept out of school for two years because of the violence. Recently, several schools in the area had opened even as separatists issued more threats against them. The Presbyterian school was among those that had reopened.
Francois Essomba contributed reporting from Yaoundé, Cameroon.
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