DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Cameroonian authorities have been holding 84 children — some as young as 5 years old — for months without charge after officials accused their teachers at Quranic schools of running terrorist training camps, Amnesty International said Friday.
The international human rights organization called on Cameroon to release the children to their parents immediately, saying nearly all of them are too young to face criminal charges. The raids in the country's far north are part of the fight against Islamic militants from the Nigeria-based group Boko Haram.
"Detaining young children will do nothing to protect Cameroonians living under the threat of Boko Haram," said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to the report and said a news conference would be held Monday.
Boko Haram has waged a six-year insurgency seeking to implement an Islamic caliphate. In recent months, militants have stepped up attacks inside neighboring countries.
Cameroonian forces arrested the 84 children in December along with 43 men in the northern town of Guirvidig, accusing the teachers of using the schools "as fronts for Boko Haram training camps," Amnesty said.
"They said they would dig our grave and throw us into it. We were scared," one child told Amnesty. "Then they roughed up our teachers . some among them had blood all over their faces."
Food is now running low at the center where the children have been detained in the northern town of Maroua, Amnesty said.
Cameroon is struggling to keep people in the far north from joining Boko Haram. Earlier this week, Cameroon assembled all its Muslim leaders in the capital, Yaounde, to teach them how to identify and denounce promoters of Islamic State ideology.
Associated Press writer Edwin Moki Kindzeka in Yaounde, Cameroon contributed to this report.