Cameroon’s army said Wednesday that three soldiers accused in the massacre of civilians in a troubled anglophone region, a case that triggered an international outcry, would go on trial on December 17.
The killing took place on February 14 in the village of Ntumbaw, in the Northwest Region, where anglophone separatists and security forces are embroiled in a bloody three-year-old conflict.
According to the government, 10 children and three women died, while the UN has put the toll at more than 23 dead, including nine children aged under five and two pregnant women.
“Three soldiers will appear in Yaounde military court for murder, arson and destruction of property, violence against a pregnant woman and disregard for orders,” army spokesman Colonel Cyrille Atonfack told AFP.
The trial will start on December 17, he confirmed.
The Cameroon authorities denied for two months that its security forces were to blame for any deaths at Ntumbaw.
It said the fatalities had resulted from an “unfortunate accident” when fuel was set ablaze during a gunfight between troops and separatists after a patrol came under fire.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its own investigation, said civilians had been slaughtered by government forces and an auxiliary militia drawn from the ethnic Fulani community.
It based this on interviews with 25 people, including three witnesses to killings and seven relatives of victims, and on satellite imagery taken before and after the attack.
In April, as international pressure mounted, President Paul Biya’s office acknowledged responsibility by the security forces, saying three soldiers and a self-defence group had “attacked” a separatist base.
“After exchanges of fire in which five terrorists were shot dead,” they “discovered that three women and 10 children had died as a result of their actions,” it said.
HRW’s Cameroon specialist, Ilaria Allegrozzi, said the watchdog group was “pleased” that a date had been set for the trial.
“We have gone from complete denial to investigation, a presidential statement and now a trial,” she said, but cautioned that “senior individuals in the chain of command” also had to be prosecuted.
English speakers account for nearly a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 24 million, who are majority French-speaking.
Most of this minority live in two western regions called the Northwest and Southwest, which were once part of British colonies in West Africa.
Decades of grievances at perceived discrimination brewed into a declaration of independence in October 2017, which was followed by a government crackdown.
More than 3,000 people have died and at least 700,000 have fled their homes. Rights monitors say abuses have been committed by both sides.