YAOUNDE, Cameroon -- In a story Sept. 30 about a national peace dialogue in Cameroon, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the country's English-speaking regions are in the South East and North East. Cameroon's English-speaking regions are in the South West and North West.
A corrected version of the story is below:
Cameroon national peace dialogue begins, without separatists
Cameroon started a national dialogue Monday in an effort to solve the separatist conflict that has killed thousands in the Anglophone regions in the past two years, but key separatist leaders refused to attend
By EDWIN KINDZEKA MOKI
YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Cameroon started a national dialogue Monday in an effort to solve the separatist conflict that has killed thousands in the country's English-speaking regions in the past two years, but key separatist leaders refused to attend.
Cameroon President Paul Biya announced the dialogue earlier in September when he also called on all separatists in the South West and North West English-speaking regions to surrender and be forgiven.
Nearly 3,000 people have died since 2017 in fighting in the regions over the separatist issue, including 300 defense and security forces. The violence forced more than 500,000 people from their homes.
The talks being led by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute extend through Friday in the capital, Yaounde.
Ngute asked the more than 1,000 people at the Yaounde conference center Monday if they would want to make history by bringing peace or war.
"Do we want future generations to remember that we were unable to find consensual answers to concerns that are not unsolvable or do we want to be considered as true peace makers in resolving this crisis that has deprived many of our children of their parents, their education and threatened their future, sometimes irreversibly?" Ngute said. "The president of Cameroon who has ordered the dialogue is waiting for the outcome so that Cameroon becomes a peace haven it was before the crisis stepped in.
The separatists refused to attend the talks, demanding that the government release their leader Julius Ayuk Tabe, who was sentenced to life in prison in August by a military tribunal that found him guilty of crimes including secession and hostilities against the state.
The rebel groups also said they would only agree to such negotiations if they take place in a foreign country with U.N. mediators and in the presence of such world powers such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
Cameroon's government, however, has said the country is united. And in his national address at the beginning of September, Biya denied any marginalization of English-speaking regions, saying he has always appointed Cabinet ministers from the regions.
On Monday, the prime minister said by solving issues of marginalization, even without the presence of the separatists, many fighters would give up their struggle.
Political analyst Willibroad Ze Ngwa of the University of Yaounde agreed, saying the dialogue will calm many fighters who joined the war because they were frustrated by marginalization.
"If strong decisions are taken to stop marginalization of English speakers and give them the opportunity to take part in governance processes by voting their local representatives, it will calm a huge majority of fighters who simply want to take part in decision making," he said.
The violence first erupted in 2016 when teachers and lawyers protested against alleged discrimination at the hands of Cameroon's French-speaking majority.
Cameroon was once divided between British and French colonial powers. English speakers make up 20 percent of country's 24 million people and have long complained of being marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state called Ambazonia, which was declared by a militant secessionist group in October 2017. That group then started attacking Cameroon officials, the military and police working in the region.
In November 2017, Biya declared war on the separatists.
Monday, Prime Minister Ngute said, "We want to see our children in schools, we want to see life return to villages that have been deserted, we want to heal our wounds and turn a new page."
The dialogue began with 30 former separatist fighters, ranging in age from 19 to 35 years old, singing the national anthem.
Yannick Kawa Kawa, their 29-year-old spokesman said he was optimistic his peers still fighting will also drop their guns if the dialogue brings proposals that will stop the French majority from dominating the English minority in the country where French and English are official languages.
"There are companies located around our areas (English-speaking regions) but most of those companies are run by French-speaking Cameroonians. We in our own areas we do not have the opportunity to work in those companies," he said. "Those are the reasons why we picked up guns to fight against our government."
The talks also include delegates from civil society groups, lawmakers, traditional rulers, clergy and Cameroonians who live overseas.
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