Twenty members of a university football team in western Cameroon were abducted and tortured by anglophone militants campaigning for an independent state, the authorities said on Friday.
The students, from the University of Buea, the capital of Southwest Region, were kidnapped on Wednesday as they were training, officials said.
“They were released late last night. They suffered acts of torture and… are in hospital for treatment,” a local government official said, blaming English-speaking secessionists.
“The 20 students were severely tortured,” said human-rights activist Felix Agbor Nkongho.
Local media said the students had been released after their families had paid a ransom.
Kidnappings for political and financial motives are a daily hazard in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon, which are in the grip of an armed separatist campaign launched in October 2017.
At least 500 civilians and more than 200 members of the security forces have died in clashes, attacks and a government crackdown, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says.
According to the UN, the unrest has forced 437,000 people to flee their homes, in addition to more than 32,000 others who have sought shelter in neighbouring Nigeria.
Around a fifth of Cameroon’s population of 24 million are English-speakers.
The roots of the conflict today date back a century, when post-World War I Germany surrendered Kamerun, its principal colony in West Africa, which was then taken over by Britain and France.
France was given the greater part of the territory, which became independent in 1960.
A year later, the British colony also gained independence.
Some of the English-speaking areas opted to join newly-formed Nigeria, while others chose to join the federation of Cameroon.
In 2017, anglophone resentment at perceived discrimination by the francophone majority came to a head, leading to the declaration of the “Republic of Ambazonia” in the two regions, named after the local Ambas Bay. The declaration has not been recognised internationally.