Authorities in Cameroon are looking for more than 80 students and staff members who were kidnapped from a school in Cameroon in the early hours of Monday morning.
At least 79 students and three staff members were taken from the Presbyterian Secondary School Nkwen in Bamenda, the capital of the country’s troubled North West Region, according to the Associated Press. The children range in age from 11 to 17, the AP reported, citing the region’s governor.
“It is rather unfortunate that this is happening, that 79 of our children and three of their staff can be picked up by terrorists,” North West Region Gov. Deben Tchoffo said. “We have asked our military to do everything and bring back the kids alive.”
On Monday, a video was released on social media that claimed to show a group of boys that had been taken from the secondary school. In the video, they call themselves “Amba boys,” in reference to the English-speaking state of Ambazonia that is locked in an independence struggle with the Cameroonian government.
While the authenticity of the video has not been confirmed, the Associated Press reported that parents recognized their children from the footage.
The region’s governor, Adolphe Lele L’Afrique, claimed that separatist militias were behind the attack, according to the BBC. The army is now conducting a widespread search for the kidnapped children.
Human rights groups were quick to condemn the kidnapping. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the kidnapping, and that “there can be no justification for these crimes against civilians, particularly minors.”
Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa, said that she was “deeply concerned” by the incident.
“Attacks on schools are a violation of children’s right and schools should be safe spaces and protected at all times,” Poirier said in a statement. “UNICEF is concerned by the escalation of the conflict in the North-West and South-West regions of Cameroon and calls on all parties to allow humanitarian access to people in need in the affected areas.”
Cameroon has been affected by sectarian tensions since a plebiscite in 1961 unified the north and south of the country.
The latest UN report says that there are around 437,000 internally displaced people in Cameroon’s southwest and northwest regions, which have been hit hardest by the tensions between the country’s English-speaking minority and French-speaking majority.
“In November 2017, the socio-political crisis progressively translated into insecurity and armed violence,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in May 2018. “Since then, the escalation of tension and upsurge in hostilities between non-state armed groups and defence and security forces have triggered humanitarian needs across the two regions, linked to significant internal displacement.”
One of the key areas affected by the humanitarian crisis is education, as the conflict has impacted 40 schools and 42,500 school-aged children’s right to education, “putting children at greater risk of exploitation, child labour, early marriage and unwanted pregnancy,” the UN reported.
There is a common perception that schools will be targeted with attacks, the report adds.