BAMENDA, Cameroon (Reuters) - At least 17 people have died in clashes between security forces and protesters in Cameroon's English-speaking regions, Amnesty International said, as violence broke out in an area where a separatist movement is gathering strength.
The clashes began on Sunday after local groups called protests against what they say is their marginalization by the Francophone-dominated government of the country's long-time ruler, Paul Biya. Witnesses said security forces opened fire, often at close range.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International's Lake Chad region researcher, told Reuters that the victims died across several towns in the two Anglophone regions bordering Nigeria.
"The worrying escalation witnessed over the weekend has now reached a crisis point," Allegrozzi said. A local mayor confirmed that one of the victims was a 13-year-old girl who died from bullet wounds.
Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, the leader of the separatist movement called the Governing Council of Ambazonia said the final death toll was likely to exceed 30. Government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
A daytime curfew was in place in the city of Bamenda on Monday, where security forces set up barricades along virtually empty avenues. A Reuters witness saw police wearing balaclavas beat and detain a young man who resisted arrest.
Cameroon, today an oil and cocoa producer with a population of more than 23 million people, was ruled by Germany until the end of World War One, then divided between the French and British victors.
The deep cultural and linguistic divides spurred protests for greater autonomy nearly a year ago and authorities have responded by locking up opponents and cutting internet access.
The government of France on Monday called on all sides to reject violence.
But opposition leader John Fru Ndi, who ran against Biya in past elections, said the president might struggle to ease tensions before next year's election. The 84-year-old Biya, who has held power since 1982, is expected to seek another term.
"There were solutions available but he missed his chance," he said in an interview at his home in Bamenda on Monday. Biya has condemned the latest outbreak of violence.
(Additional reporting by Edward McAllister and Anne-Mireille Nzouankeu; Writing by Emma Farge)