By Edward McAllister
DAKAR (Reuters) - Anglophone secessionists in Cameroon killed at least two gendarmes on Wednesday, two secessionist leaders and a security official said, signaling an escalation in their protracted dispute with the central government.
The attacks in the English-speaking city of Bamenda marked the worst fighting in recent years between secessionist militants and government forces in the central African state after a year of mostly peaceful protest.
Anglophone lawyers and teachers launched demonstrations a year ago against what they see as a marginalization of English-speakers by President Paul Biya's government in the Northwest and Southwest regions who were forced to work in French.
A harsh crackdown by state forces, including the use of helicopter gunships to fire on civilians, has killed dozens of people and bolstered support for the once-fringe separatist movement ahead of presidential elections in 2018.
Cho Ayaba, a leading member of the Ambazonian Governing Council, a separatist body established to create an independent state called Ambazonia, said secessionist militants killed three gendarmes in two coordinated attacks in Bamenda, the capital of the predominantly English-speaking Northwest region.
Cameroonian security sources reported the deaths of two gendarmes in an overnight attack near Bamenda, with one senior military official blaming the secessionists. Another source said the gendarmes were ambushed by armed men on motorbikes.
Cameroon's government spokesman and chief of police could not be reached immediately for comment.
Ayaba said members of the Ambazonian Defence Force, an armed wing of the separatist movement, killed two gendarmes in a first attack around 2 a.m. (0100 GMT) at a checkpoint near Bamenda airport, and a third was killed in an ambush on a gendarme patrol unit in a Bamenda suburb about an hour later.
"We carried out the actions," said Ayaba. "Their security forces are a target and we will continue attacking them until they are gone." Another separatist leader confirmed his account.
Cameroon's linguistic divide harks back a century to the League of Nations' decision to split the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors at the end of World War One.
The secessionist movement has existed for decades underground but has only recently started to gain widespread support in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest in response to the government's repression of protests.
Hundreds of Anglophone Cameroonians were swept up in mass arrests following violent demonstrations on Oct. 1, and at least 5,000 have fled the crisis for neighboring Nigeria.
(writing by Aaron Ross; editing by Mark Heinrich)