'More than 100 dead' in Cameroon clashes

More than 100 people died in clashes between demonstrators and police in Cameroon last week, a local human rights group said on Wednesday in the absence of an official toll.

“We can already say there are more than 100 dead. News comes in to us every day and we are still checking it out,” Madeleine Afite of the Maison des Droits de L’Homme (House of Human Rights) said.

Serious unrest began on February 25 in the Central African nation’s economic hub of Douala, a Gulf of Guinea port city, and spread in four days to other towns including Yaoundé, the inland capital in central Cameroon.

A strike against a rise in fuel prices and protests at the overall high cost of essential products coincided with political opposition to a proposal that would enable President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, to run for another term in 2011.

Afite said that in one incident, “a group of demonstrators was trapped on the Wouri Bridge [in Douala] between security forces stationed at both ends. Many people leapt into the water.
Eighteen bodies have been recovered by now. But fishermen have been threatened” if they talk.

Witnesses at the time said that riot police turned water cannon on the protestors on the bridge. Authorities in Douala, an opposition stronghold, had imposed a ban on any rallies and demonstrations in mid-January.

Afite said that security forces opened fire on demonstrators in a number of towns. The toll she gave was more than five times the provisional one compiled by Agence France-Presse in main towns and from witness reports and medical sources during the disturbances, which was 17 dead.

“In Njombe [north of Douala], we know that the security forces opened fire at point blank range on employees of a banana plantation who took their bosses hostage. There were many dead, but we still don’t know exactly how many,” Afite said.

“I’ve been told that I’ve become a target since I’ve talked in public about the casualty toll,” added Afite, whose group is affiliated to the International Federation of Human Rights. “My car was smashed up last night [Tuesday].”

After the unrest spread to Yaoundé, the government sent the army on to the streets in strength, while troops patrolled strategic junctions and guarded filling stations.

The economic and political unrest, which cleared city streets of traffic for three days on top of a strike by bus and taxi drivers and road haulage firms, was accompanied by looting, mainly by gangs of youths.

Biya, who rarely makes public appearances, did so on television on February 27 to blame strife on “apprentice sorcerers in the shadows”, accusing his foes of campaigning to oust him.

“For some ... the objective is to obtain by violence what they have not achieved through the ballot box,” he said. “What we’re looking at here is the exploitation ... of the transport strike for political ends.”

The strike itself was called off the previous night when union leaders negotiated a small cut in recently hiked petrol prices, but the vice-president of the opposition Social Democratic Front (SDF), Joshua Osih, said that “what’s happening ... has nothing to do with a simple strike against a rise in fuel prices”.

“It’s the expression of multiple frustrations among the Cameroonian people,” Osih said, the same day as Biya warned of a crackdown. “The trouble runs deep,” he added, pointing out that most vandals were unemployed people under 30.

The SDF, strong in English-speaking parts of Cameroon bordering on Nigeria and led by political veteran John Fru Ndi, spearheads opposition to a planned amendment to the Constitution that would enable Biya to run again for office.

Biya said early in January that a constitutional bar on a third elected term “sits badly with the very idea of democratic choice”, and the old guard in his Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement now wants it scrapped.—AFP

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