More than 15,000 Cameroonian refugees have fled to Nigeria amid a crackdown on Anglophone separatists, the United Nations (UN) refugee agency and Nigerian government officials reported.

The separatist movement by the minority English-speaking minority in Cameroon has strengthened over the last few months following a military crackdown on protests calling for equality with the majority French-speaking population and complaints of discrimination by the Francophone government.

In October the separatists declared an independent state of Ambazonia which they want to create and this has subsequently created the biggest threat to the 35-year rule of President Paul Biya who is seeking re-election this year.

More than 8,000 refugees have been registered in the south-eastern state of Cross River alone, said Antonio Jose Canhandula, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) representative in Nigeria, at a briefing in Abuja.

A further 6,700 or so Cameroonian refugees have crossed into neighbouring Benue state, said Sadiya Umar Farouq, the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, citing Benue officials.

There are also at least 350 refugees in the states of Taraba and Akwa Ibom, said Tamuno Dienye Jaja, deputy comptroller general of the Nigeria Immigration Service.

Most of the refugees are women, children and the elderly.

Twelve separatist leaders were taken into custody by the Nigerian authorities last week, including the chairman of the self-declared Governing Council of Ambazonia after they gathered for a meeting in a hotel in the Nigerian capital Abuja, Reuters reported

Cameroonian troops last month crossed into Nigeria in pursuit of rebels without seeking Nigerian authorisation, leading to diplomatic tensions.

- African News Agency (ANA)