DOUALA, 29 August 2008 (IRIN) - In 2001 the Cameroonian government created a special rapid intervention battalion (BIR) to quell hostage-taking and looting by criminal gangs operating on its eastern and northern borders, but this force is now straying from its original mission, causing anger among human rights groups.
The BIR was originally set up to fight criminal gangs known as ‘coupeurs de routes’ who operate on the borders with the Central African Republic in the east and Chad and Nigeria in the north taking hostages for ransom, stealing cattle, as well as attacking and looting passenger vehicles.
According to a high-level army officer who preferred anonymity, the attackers are made up of Central African and Chadian rebels, many of whom operate with sophisticated weaponry.
When the extent of these attacks started to overwhelm the national police service, the BIR was called in. According to local press reports, up to 600 people have been killed in Cameroon over the past two years and US$8.9 million taken in ransom in 2007 alone.
But in February 2008 in the cities of Douala and Yaoundé the BIR was called on to crack down on rioters protesting against the high cost of living. Jean Bertin Kemayou, leader of human rights organisation Freedom Services, claims up to 100 people died in these protests, most of them unarmed civilians at the hands of the BIR.
“The number of deaths in the riots was very high mainly because of the brutal repression of the protests by the BIR. People are now too afraid to speak out against anything because of the repression of those demonstrations," Kemayou told IRIN.
Tchuenbou Paulin, general coordinator of an umbrella human rights association, told IRIN: “Nothing could justify such a punitive action since the BIR [already] has a clear mission and the youths’ protests against miserable living conditions were legitimate.”
The same senior army official justified the BIR’s February intervention. "This was a special operation and as a general rule the BIR does not operate in cities... but [in this case] the country's security was threatened and we had to do everything possible to restore peace." The local authorities put the number of deaths at 40.
President Paul Biya then mobilised the BIR again in April 2008 fearing that a change to the constitution might incur mass protests, leading the BIR to take control of several of the country’s major towns.
Force less effective
For some, diverting the BIR to cities means it is unable to carry out its original mandate. While the unit is to be increased from 1,000 to 1,800 by the end of 2008, a former BIR officer said this would not be enough to secure the border areas. "The BIR…must secure a vast territory. For its actions to be effective, it would need to increase its staff to at least 3,000 and to not be sidetracked for police or gendarmerie operations.”
However, rather than reinforcing the BIR’s existing work on the border, the government plans to extend the BIR’s role by deploying it to the oil-rich Bakassi region which has been in dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria for over a decade.
Though ownership of Bakassi was officially handed over to Cameroon on 14 August following an International Court of Justice ruling, the region is still plagued by armed attacks, some allegedly perpetrated by Nigerian rebels who are challenging the decision of international justice, according to a Cameroonian public official.
For the army officer, extending to Bakassi is a bridge too far for the BIR. "The elements of this unit have been trained for a specific mission… they are unable to cope with rebel armies."
In the meantime on the borders the bandit attacks continue. In June 2008 bandits killed 10 hostages of the 15 they had abducted in May, on the Chad border. In a separate incident that same month a group attacked a transport vehicle, killing a policeman.