“These accusations of atrocities are dreamt up. We are victims of disinformation and fake news,” army spokesman Colonel Didier Badjeck told AFP, just days after the appearance of the latest of a string of grisly video clips.
None of the clips could be independently verified by AFP, with Badjeck insisting the army had “a culture of respect for human rights” and accusing the separatists of being “skilled at disinformation”.
Since October, troops have staged a crackdown targeting activists in Cameroon’s restive western regions where the English-speaking minority has staged protests against the government in this predominantly francophone country.
Dozens of people have died. Official figures, though, refer to the 23 police and soldiers killed but do not provide a detailed count for civilian or separatist casualties.
In the absence of any formal acknowledgement of the toll among separatists, eyewitness accounts of brutality against civilians have proliferated on social media and in parts of the press.
On Wednesday, the European Union condemned the violence in Cameroon, referring to the recent deaths of three members of the security forces and a number of civilians as “unacceptable” and calling on the police and army to exercise restraint.
“It remains crucial for the security forces to be proportionate in their use of force while carrying out their duties,” it said in a statement which followed similar condemnation from the US State Department a day earlier.
But the Cameroon army spokesman said they were at risk of falling foul of a campaign of disinformation.
“It’s important that the bodies with which we maintain good relations don’t just listen to one side,” he said.
– ‘We are harassed’ –
Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest Regions are home to an anglophone minority that accounts for about a fifth of the country’s population and which has long complained of discrimination at the hands of the French-speaking majority.
In October, separatists issued a symbolic declaration of independence for the putative state of Ambazonia, prompting a crackdown by a government firmly opposed to secession.
Anglophone separatists have responded by escalating their own operations against state institutions. The spiralling violence has forced an estimated 30,000 Cameroonians to flee to neighbouring Nigeria.
Badjeck said a soldier had died on Thursday after being stabbed in the eye with a knife in the main western town of Bamenda, with his death raising the toll among the police and security forces to 23.
“Our soldiers are struck down every day. We are harassed. It may happen that there are reactions on the ground, that a soldier loses his self-control. But it hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
And last weekend, at least four civilians were shot dead by troops during several incidents in the Northwest Region, witnesses said. One told AFP that men “in military uniform came and started smashing up houses.”