Yaoundé — A Cameroon Airlines Company (Camair-co) passenger plane has been grounded after gunmen fired at it on Sunday as it approached landing at an airport in the restive English speaking Northwest region.
The attack on the passenger plane has raised fears that militants seeking separation of the region from the rest of Cameroon have changed tack after an aid worker was killed in the region on Saturday.
The militants have so far been targeting communities and traders for extortion with dire consequences for those who resist. The attack on the plane and the aid worker now suggests the militants are more emboldened and are targeting government installations as well as non-governmental organisations, possibly with a view to draw international attention.
The Ambazonia Governing Council said it targeted the plane and alleged that commercial flights were being used to transport soldiers and weapons.
He warned that Cameroon Airlines would be risking the lives of passengers if their flight schedules are not shared with the separatists beforehand.
"If we cannot confirm, we will consider all planes coming in as a security risk. This is war," Reuters quoted AGC leader Ayaba Cho Lucas saying. AGC, one of the separatist movements, controls the Ambazonia Defence Forces Armed group.
The Chinese-made MA60 that regularly flies from Douala to Bamenda landed safely and there were no casualties.
"The aircraft was able to land smoothly despite the impact on its fuselage," Camair-co General Manager, Louis Georges Njipendi Kouotou said in a statement.
He said technicians and mechanics had been deployed to return the aircraft to the firm's base in Douala. The company, he said, would also review its flight schedules "to limit any disruption."
Analysts said the attack on the commercial flight marked a serious escalation given AGC claims that Camair-co carriers were being used for military purposes. However, Bamenda has been the centre of security operations in the North West.
"Attacking civilian airliners without proof of military use is a red line that could have significant effects on what has been a slow but growing international recognition that President Biya's government is the main obstacle to peace," said Chris W J Roberts, president of African Access Consulting.
Political leaders have condemned the shooting of the commercial plane as a setback to the resolution of the Anglophone conflict that started in September with the Major National Dialogue that separatist militants boycotted.
"Shooting at Camair-co aircraft is an outright act of international terrorism. It advances no cause, endangers innocent lives and destroys any capital accumulated," said former Presidential candidate Akere Muna.
He added that the shooting would derail the search for justice and peace in the region while others called for an independent investigation into the shooting. Under international law attacks on civilian targets are criminal.
Dr Roberts said he had not come across any evidence that Camair-co flights are being used for military purposes.
On Saturday gunmen abducted and later killed Pascal Ngwayi in the Donga Mantung Division while he was on a humanitarian assessment mission.
The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Cameroon, Allegra Baiocchi, urged armed ac-tors to ensure the protection of aid workers and accord them safe passage.
"The continued attacks on aid workers only increase the suffering of civilians, as we are unable to safely carry out operations," Mr Baiocchi said in a statement.
Cameroon's two English speaking regions of the Northwest and Southwest have been a battlefield between government troops and armed secessionists pushing for the independence of the minority English speakers and the creation of the state of Ambazonia.
The three-year armed conflict has claimed over 3,000 lives, with half a million people displaced from their homes and 40,000 more having fled to Nigeria, according to the International Crisis Group. Government disputes the figures.
In September, President Paul Biya called for talks to end the crisis that the UN says has created a humanitarian emergency for nearly two million people.
The escalation of violence came barely three days after three political and security groupings - The African Union, Commonwealth and La Francophonie - pledged to support peace efforts in the region.
Two leading opposition parties - the Social Democratic Front and Cameroon Renaissance Movement - have said they will not take part in the February 9, 2020 Parliamentary and municipal elections until the conflict is resolved and reforms made to level the political playing field.