Four suspected separatists in Cameroon’s troubled anglophone region have been sentenced to death over the killing of seven schoolchildren, the defence ministry announced on Friday.
A military court on Tuesday sentenced the four to “execution in public by firing squad,” it said in a statement to AFP.
The seven children, aged between nine and 12, were killed in October last year when armed men opened fire on their school in Kumba in the Southwest Region — one of two western regions gripped by a long-running breakaway campaign.
The four defendants were sentenced by a military tribunal in the regional capital of Buea for “acts of terrorism, hostility towards the motherland, insurrection and murder,” the ministry said.
Western Cameroon is in the grip of a four-year old conflict triggered by militants demanding independence for two predominantly English-speaking regions in the francophone-majority state.
More than 3,500 people have been killed and over 700,000 have fled their homes.
Rights groups say abuses have been committed by both separatists and the armed forces.
Several death sentences have been issued against separatists in past years, although no execution has been carried out in Cameroon for more than two decades.
The defendants have 10 days in which to appeal, the ministry said.
Their lawyers could not be immediately reached by AFP.
The presence of the anglophone regions in Cameroon derives from the colonial era.
The former German possession of Cameroon was partitioned after World War I between Britain and France.
In 1961, part of the British territory, the Southern Cameroons, joined Cameroon after it gained independence from France.
Anglophones have repeatedly complained about perceived discrimination at the hands of the francophone majority, especially in education and law.
Demands for reform and local autonomy were rejected by Cameroon’s veteran president, Paul Biya, culminating in the separatists’ declaration of independence on October 1 2017.
Their self-declared entity, Ambazonia, is not recognised internationally.
In addition to attacking troops and police, separatists in the two English-speaking regions have targed buildings deemed to be a symbol of the francophone state.
These include schools, and some of the fatalities have been teachers, although the attack in Kumbamarked the first time that students had died.
The assault targeted a dual-language school, the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy.
More than 10 other children suffered gunshot or machete wounds.
In February, the army said that it had killed the leader of the attacking group, an individual nicknamed “Above the Law,” and four other separatists.
In November 2019, the UN’s children’s fund UNICEF said 855,000 children were without schooling in the anglophone region.
At the time of its report, 90 percent of state-run primary schools, and 77 percent of secondary schools were either closed or non-operational.