Yaounde, Cameroon — A prominent traditional leader in Cameroon's troubled Northwest region has been freed after 18 months of being held captive by separatists. Government officials say Cameroon's military rescued Fon Kevin Shumitang in battles with separatist fighters, but the fighters insist that they set the traditional ruler free.
Cameroon government officials say the central African state's military freed Shumitang from a separatist camp in Bui, in the Northwest region on Thursday morning.
Government officials say several fighters were killed in the encounter but gave no further details.
Deben Tchoffo, the governor of the region, says the traditional leader's release shows authorities are gradually restoring order after years of separatist unrest.
"I would like to congratulate military men that carried out the operation, said Tchoffo. "They have been able to take back the Fon of Bambalang. Indeed, it is coming to confirm that things are coming back bit by bit normally in almost all the major parts on the Northwest region."
Tchoffo says Shumitang will be presented to civilians at his palace after undergoing a medical examination.
Images shared on social media and broadcast over local TV stations showed Shumitang unkempt but not looking thin or unhealthy.
Shumitang was kidnapped from his palace in the town of Bambalang by separatist fighters led by self-proclaimed General No Pity on December 7, 2021, according to the military.
The military says it took a long time to free Shumitang because the government wanted him alive.
Capo Daniel is leader of the Ambazonia Peoples Rights Advocacy Platform, one of Cameroon's separatist groups.
He says the separatists released Shumitang after five months of negotiations.
"The Cameroon government arrested 15 family members of No Pity and transferred them to Yaounde," said Daniel. "Both of them were used to pressurize No Pity to come to a compromise to release the Fon of Bambalang. That is exactly what happened. There was no military operation. The Fon was released and then handed over to the Cameroon authorities.
Daniel says the separatists expect officials to release No Pity's family members in the days ahead as agreed during negotiations.
Cameroon's military says the allegation that Shumitang's release was negotiated is unfounded.
The government has not said whether No Pity's relatives were arrested to force the self-proclaimed general to release Shumitang.
Shumitang is the president of the Northwest region's House of Chiefs and vice President of the Northwest Regional Assembly. Both structures are elected organs that discuss community development.
Shumitang was elected during Cameroon's first-ever regional elections in 2020. Separatists say he was abducted for participating in the House of Chiefs, a structure they say does not represent the aspirations of English speakers.
Cameroon's English-speaking separatists launched their rebellion in 2017 after what they say was years of discrimination by the country's French-speaking majority.
The conflict has killed more than 6,000 people and displaced more than 760,000 others, according to the International Crisis Group.