Violence Spreads in Cameroon's Main City, Douala

25 February 2008

At least two civilians are reported to have been killed in Douala, Cameroon, where protesters and police have been battling each other since Saturday. The unrest began after authorities blocked a planned opposition protest against government plans to change to the constitution. Transport workers have also gone on strike to protest rising fuel prices. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Police clashed with demonstrators in and around Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon. Stores closed, and witnesses say people are afraid to go outside.

Director of Cameroon's International Relations Institute, Narcisse Mouellé Kombe, says he needed a police escort to navigate the barricaded and chaotic streets as he left the city this morning to return to his office in Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé.

Transport workers, including bus, taxi, and motorcycle taxi drivers, struck nationwide to protest the rising cost of fuel and other basic necessities.

Kombe says Yaoundé is also paralyzed by the transport strike. The roads are empty and no taxis are running.

But he says in Yaoundé, the protest has been peaceful.

In Douala, the transport strike comes at a time when tensions in the city were already high. Violence erupted Saturday and continued on Sunday in response to a planned protest against a proposal by President Paul Biya to eliminate constitutional term limits for the president.

Mr. Biya has been in power since 1982. His party holds a strong majority in parliament, which analysts believe will give him enough votes to make the change.

Opposition leaders say their supporters gathered on Saturday, despite the decision to postpone the march after they failed to gain authorization from the government. Police fired tear gas and water cannons on the crowd, and the situation deteriorated as demonstrators barricaded the streets, burned tires and market stands, and the police response escalated.

The government has condemned the violence in Doula and is asking for calm.

International Relations Institute Director Kombe says he believes the opposition is, in his words, adding fuel to the flames, by failing to appeal to their supporters to stop the violence.

But national secretary of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, John Fru Ndi says the population is fighting for their rights.

"There are people who are very angry with the constitutional change, there are people who are very angry with the price hikes of petrol, price hike of cement," he said. "I mean, the country is expensive. So all these things have summed up to give the state of affairs that Cameroon finds itself in."

Demonstrators are also protesting the government closure of a private television station last Thursday. The communications minister said the private station had failed to pay the required fee for an operating license. French-based Reporters without Borders condemned the closure, saying the technicality was merely a pretext for shutting down a station that broadcast opposition views.