Gunmen kidnapped 79 school students on Monday in an English-speaking region of Cameroon where separatists are fighting an armed campaign for independence, security and government sources said.
Militias, who have been demanding the independence of the two English-speaking regions, have called for a school boycott. But no rebel group has said it carried out the kidnapping of the students and the principal at Bamenda’s Presbyterian Secondary School, which has pupils aged between 10 and 14.
A video of some of the children, believed to have been filmed by one of the kidnappers, is being shared on social media. The students, all boys and crammed into a tiny room, all look nervous as the person holding the camera orders them to say their names and where they are from.
They also repeat the phrase: “I was taken from school last night by the Amba boys, I don’t know where I am.” Amba is short for Ambazonia, the name of the new country that the separatists want to create.
One student, who managed to avoid capture by hiding under a bed, told the BBC that events unfolded quickly as the kidnappers entered the school.
“One of my friends, they beat him mercilessly. All I could think about was to just stay quiet. They threatened to shoot some people… all the big boys they rounded up, and the small ones they left them behind.”
A teacher at the school described what she saw as she entered the principal’s office after students had been taken from different dormitories. She told the BBC gunmen “came in and went to the principal’s house where we realised that her door was bashed and entered into, the glasses are still there on the ground”.
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, the Right Reverend Fonki Samuel Forba told the BBC that he had spoken to the kidnappers.
“They don’t want any ransom. All they want is for us to close the schools. We have promised to close down the schools,” he told the BBC.
“We hope and pray they release the kids and the teachers,” he added.
It is not the first time students have been abducted in the area, known to be a stronghold of separatist fighters, reports the BBC’s Ngala Killian Chimtom. On 19 October, five students of the Atiela Bilingual High School were taken by unidentified gunmen. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
The separatists say that the Cameroon school system suppresses the English-speaking system that the North-West and South-West regions inherited from the British.