Villagers in a restive anglophone region of Cameroon who the UN says were massacred died in an “unfortunate accident,” the army told AFP on Monday.
The bloodshed, which occurred on Friday, killed 22 civilians, 14 of them children, according to the UN — deaths which part of the opposition blames on members of the armed forces.
But army spokesman Colonel Cyrille Atonfack Guemo described the allegation as “duplicitous.”
An army investigation determined that the deaths were an “unfortunate accident,” which happened when fuel exploded in an exchange of gunfire with separatists, he said by phone to AFP in Libreville.
He said five civilians — a woman and four children — died, and “seven terrorists” were “neutralised”.
The deaths occurred in the village of Ntumbo in Cameroon’s Northwest Region — one of two regions that have been grappling with violence since October 2017.
Fighting between separatists campaigning for a separate anglophone state in French-speaking Cameroon has left around 3,000 people dead and caused more than 700,000 to flee their homes.
“It was quite simply an unfortunate accident, the collateral result of security operations in the region,” Atonfack said in a statement.
He said four soldiers and two gendarmes had been carrying out nighttime reconnaissance on foot near a home that had been “transformed into a fortress” with a stockpile of weapons.
They came under heavy fire, and exchanges caused “several containers of fuel to explode, followed by a blaze which spread several neighbouring homes.”
The army had previously denied any involvement in the deaths.
On Sunday, James Nunan, a local official with UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA, told AFP said armed men had carried out the killings.
“Up to 22 civilians were killed, including a pregnant woman and several children,” Nunan said, adding that 14 children — including nine under age five — were among the dead.
Eleven of the children were girls, said Nunan, head of OCHA’s office for the Northwest and Southwest regions.
The Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon, one of the country’s two main opposition parties, earlier issued a statement condemning the attacks.
“The dictatorial regime (and) the supreme head of the security and defence forces are chiefly responsible for these crimes,” it said.