Gunmen stormed a school in Cameroon and opened fire over the weekend, killing several children and wounding more.
The attack occurred on Saturday in Kumba, a town in the country’s restive Anglophone region, where separatist insurgents operate.
At least seven children have died and 12 were injured in the incident, according to Reuters.
Cameroonian Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute said that nine students had died and condemned a “dastardly act of wickedness.”
“I bow before the memory of these innocent kids,” he tweeted Sunday. “I urge all Cameroonians to firmly stand against these acts of atrocity. The Republic will not bow to terror.”
According to Ntou Ndong Chamberlain, a local administrator in the district where the incident took place, armed men stormed the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy, a private school where students were attending classes, opening fire on them before escaping.
“We were studying French when we heard three gunshots from outside and the teacher had to escape so we had to bow our heads on the ground and started praying,” a student who was at the scene of the incident said. “They started shooting randomly around the school campus before they left. When they had gone, we got up to discover dead bodies and some injured lying on the ground.”
Local authorities fear the death toll might increase as most of the injured children are in a critical condition.
Boniface Tamungwa, a pastor in Kumba who arrived the scene of the incident, said his 11-year old was among the children killed.
“I was in the house with my sick wife when a [student] came and started shouting telling me they had shot and killed my son. I went to the school and saw my son dead, he was among the three children who died on the spot,” Tamungwa said.
Ongoing separatist violence
No group has claimed responsibility though local authorities have accused separatist fighters of targeting the school. People have been raising awareness of the incident on social media under the hashtag #EndAnglophoneCrisis.
This is in reference to ongoing movements which advocate a separation between English-speaking Cameroon from the French-speaking part of the country. Separatists in Anglophone regions have been fighting with government forces and government-backed militias for several years.
Both sides stand accused of violence against civilians, which began in 2016 after residents in the country’s Anglophone provinces, where 20% of Cameroon’s population live, protested the government led by French speakers.
The Anglophone conflict has internally displaced more than 670,000 people in affected areas, while 60,000 Cameroonians have fled escalating violence to neighboring Nigeria, according to the United Nations’ estimates in February.
In that same month, at least 14 children were among 22 people killed by armed men in Ntumbo, a village in northwestern Cameroon, a UN official said.
“Let me use this opportunity to condemn not only what has happened but to tell (the separatist fighters) that we are going to do our best to shut them down. Let them run, but we are behind them,” Chamberlain, the local administrator, said in the wake of this weekend’s attack.
The attack on the school comes just two weeks into the start of the new academic year.
A 2019 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, revealed an estimated 855,000 children have been out of school in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions, where government forces have been battling with separatist fighters for close to four years.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was another “disturbing reminder of the [conflict’s] heavy toll on civilians, including children, many of whom have been deprived of their right to education.”
A Sunday statement from Guterres’s spokesperson called for Cameroonian authorities to conduct an investigation to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.
In another statement, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms.”
“I am shocked and outraged at these abominable attacks,” Fore said, adding that schools must be places of safety and learning, “not death traps.”
The US embassy in Cameroon condemned the killings and offered condolences to the families affected.
Francis Ajumane reported from Yaoundé. CNN’s Anita Patrick contributed to this report.