Separatists in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions kidnapped more than 100 people and torched property in the runup to elections last weekend, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
State security forces also committed “further abuses” in the two troubled regions, the watchdog said.
“Separatist leaders should issue clear instructions to their fighters to end their crimes against civilians,” HRW’s Central Africa director, Lewis Mudge, said in a statement.
“The government of Cameroon should ensure that its security forces put civilians first, by stopping their violations, prioritizing civilian protection, and holding abusers accountable.”
The nationwide elections on Sunday were to elect a new legislature and local councils.
The vote should have been held in 2017 but was twice postponed.
But it was overshadowed by a more-than two-year armed revolt in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, home to Cameroon’s large English-speaking minority.
Years of grievances at perceived discrimination by the francophone majority snowballed into a declaration of independence in October 2017, to which the government responded with a crackdown.
The conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused more than 700,000 people to flee, according to tolls compiled by NGOs.
The declaration of independence has not been recognised internationally, although the government has lately responded to the crisis by decentralising some of its powers.
HRW said armed separatists attacked people wishing to take part in the election, either as voters, campaigners, civil servants or candidates.
“The targets included members and supporters of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party, which the separatists accuse of failing to show solidarity with their cause,” it said.
They also burned several election offices, a post office where electoral material was stored and at least seven homes belonging to government officials and candidates.
“Rather than protecting civilians from these attacks, government forces committed their own violations against them,” HRW said.
“Between January 17 and 20, 2020, security forces carried out a military operation in Bali, Northwest Region, destroying over 50 homes and killing several civilians, including two men with intellectual disabilities.”
The election results and turnout have yet to be published.