(This June 7 story corrects source of fighter estimates in paragraph 12, clarifies view on separatists in paragraph 8)
By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) – Prospects for talks between authorities and separatist movements to end escalating violence in Cameroon’s English-speaking region are slim, a senior human rights official said on Friday, dismissing assertions by both sides to be open to dialogue.
A separatist insurgency broke out in 2017 following a government crackdown on peaceful protests in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest, which complain of being marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Prime Minister Joseph Ngute has said the government would be willing to talk to the rebels, but would not consider their demand for secession – a position hardline separatists have said they will never accept.
Eleven movements representing Anglophone Cameroon, including the main armed factions, last month said they were willing to enter mediated discussions with the state.
But almost daily violence from both sides has intensified, forcing thousands of civilians to seek refuge in Cameroon’s French-speaking regions and neighboring countries.
“There is no desire for dialogue … The abuses are coming from both sides and the civilians are finding themselves in the middle,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, Senior Central Africa Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Paris.
“The position of the government is an almost complete denial … and there is total impunity for the violence.”
Allegrozzi said separatists were not in denial of the scale of the crisis, but of human rights abuses by their fighters.
The oil, cocoa and timber-producing nation was among western Africa’s most settled until a few years ago.
But the United Nations estimates that, since 2017, about 1,800 people have been killed and more than 530,000 displaced with 1.3 million in need. Authorities have promised to act over accusations of rights violations by security personnel.
Allegrozzi, who was refused entry to the country in May over her research, said divisions among armed separatist groups could be an obstacle to form a platform to negotiate, an element the government was using to its advantage.
She cited an International Crisis Group report putting the number of separatists fighters at about 2,000-4,000 fighters and there was evidence that they were acquiring more sophisticated weaponry.
The crisis has tended to slip beneath the international radar given President Paul Biya’s close cooperation with Western states in the fight against Islamist militant group Boko Haram in West and central Africa.
But the United States has become increasingly critical of the government and the separatist crisis was discussed for the first time at the U.N. Security Council last month.
Allegrozzi said the Anglophone population was increasingly in tune with idea of independence. “There is a growing feeling of support toward the separatists and secession,” she said.
Reporting by John Irish; Additional reporting by Josiane Kouagheu in Douala and Tim Cocks in Dakar; Editing by Bate Felix and John Stonestreet