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One of the world’s leading humanitarian agencies is withdrawing from a conflict-torn region of Cameroon after the government banned it from providing health care to thousands of people who have no other care.

Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) announced on Tuesday that it is pulling out of the North-West Regionof Cameroon, one of two anglophone regions where nearly a million people have fled their homes because of fighting between government forces and armed separatists.

“We cannot stay any longer in a region where we are not allowed to provide care to people,” said Emmanuel Lampaert, the MSF operations co-ordinator for Central Africa.

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“This suspension significantly reduces access to medical services in an area where communities are badly affected by armed violence,” he said in a statement. “The people are paying a very heavy price for this situation.”

Aid group MSF says it is ‘horrified’ after three colleagues found dead in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

More than 3,000 people have been killed in the two regions since fighting erupted in late 2016. Dozens of battles have been reported in the past two months in the latest surge of violence. Health clinics and ambulances were among the services forced to close as a result, leaving many people dependent on groups such as MSF.

Cameroon’s authoritarian government ordered MSF to suspend its activities in the North-West Region last December, after a series of accusations that the humanitarian agency was supporting local armed groups in the region. MSF repeatedly denied the allegations over several months of efforts to overturn the suspension.

Government accusations against humanitarian agencies are becoming increasingly common in global conflict zones. This week, the Ethiopian government ordered a halt in the activities of two aid agencies – the Dutch branch of MSF and the Norwegian Refugee Council – that have been providing support to thousands of people in the war-ravaged Tigray region.

Ethiopian officials have repeatedly alleged that aid workers are transporting weapons to Tigrayan rebels. The United Nations aid chief, Martin Griffiths, said on Tuesday that the accusations are dangerous and must stop.

In conflict zones, humanitarian agencies are often the only source of medical services for many people. In Cameroon’s anglophone regions, an estimated one-fifth of all health facilities have stopped functioning because of the crisis.

A report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition found that attacks on health clinics, as well as arrests and kidnappings of health workers, were on the rise last year in Cameroon – citing 17 such incidents compared with eight in the previous year.

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“From kidnapping and threats, to acts of violence in medical facilities, it’s clear that the space afforded to medical workers and humanitarians is shrinking,” MSF said in a report from Cameroon last month. “Since MSF began operating an ambulance service in the North-West and South-West regions in 2018, the nurses, drivers and patients in the ambulances have regularly been harassed, threatened and intimidated by armed men.”

In the North-West region, MSF was providing the only free around-the-clock ambulance service, and it was one of the few agencies providing free medical care to tens of thousands of people. Last year alone, its teams performed 3,272 surgical operations, transported 4,407 people by ambulance, treated 180 survivors of sexual violence, and supported more than 42,500 consultations by community health workers.

In a report this week, Human Rights Watch said the recent surge of battles between government forces and armed separatists has led to a rise in abuses by both sides. In a two-day period in early June, for example, Cameroonian security forces killed two civilians, raped a 53-year-old woman, and destroyed and looted at least 33 homes and shops, the report said. It described how the security forces had ransacked and desecrated the palace of a traditional leader in one village.

In separate attacks in recent weeks, armed separatists killed a 12-year-old boy and a 51-year-old teacher and kidnapped four humanitarian workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Amnesty International, in a report last week, provided satellite images of several villages burned or destroyed by attackers, leaving dozens of civilians dead.

The fighting has continued unabated for three years, “with civilians bearing the brunt of unlawful killings, kidnappings and widespread destruction of houses and villages,” Amnesty said. “Government intervention has been limited, and there has been near-complete silence from the international community.”

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In Canada, petitioners have sent letters to Parliament, calling for sanctions against Cameroonian leaders implicated in the violence. The Canadian government has responded that it is deeply concerned by the violence in Cameroon and has encouraged the Cameroonian authorities to take steps towards a negotiated solution.

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