The Anglophones in the predominently French-speaking country say they feel like second class citizens. Now some say equality isn't enough - they want independence.
Cameroonian protesters in New York outside the hotel of President Paul Biya who was attending the UN General Assembly
Thousands of English speakers in the predominantly French speaking Cameroon took to the streets Friday to demand more rights amid calls for secession.
The two Anglophone regions in the west of the country, where the protests took place, account for 15 percent, or 3.6 million of the country's 24 million inhabitants.
They have long-standing complaints about political and economic discrimination that reignited late last year when lawyers and teachers called for reforms. Police killed six protesters and arrested hundreds more during the initial demonstrations.
Subsequently the government shut down the internet in the region for four months at the start of the year. The move crippled businesses and was condemned internationally.
The latest protests were the largest and most widespread in months, and came a day after a bomb blast wounded three policemen in the Northwest Region capital of Bamenda.
The protests appeared to go beyond previous calls for justice and education reform.
In Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region, protesters took down a national flag outside a police station, while officers looked on, and hoisted the blue and white striped one of "Ambazonia", a name for the Anglophone territory.
A local journalist described a similar incident in the nearby town of Ekona.
In Buea, the capital of the country's southwest region, young men painted their faces blue and white, blew whistles and shouted "We want freedom!"
"We need independence. We need to be free. We are Ambazonians," said Emmanuel Che, one of the protesters. "The only solution to this matter is let the government solve the problem by giving our independence."
Some Anglophones have been calling for independence for years, but they are outnumbered by those merely wanting reforms, according to experts.
Still, the protests are uncomfortable for the government of President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 35 years and was addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday.
"It is intensifying now. It has shifted to another level of extremism," said political analyst Albert Nchinda.
Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary's sharp response illustrates the increasing tensions on both sides.
"We are faced with a proper terrorist organization," Bakary said of the secessionists.
"No stone should be left unturned in the process of getting rid of them."
Cameroon's linguistic divide goes back to the end of World War I, when the League of Nations divided the former German colony of Kamerun between the allied French and British victors.
The French part became independent in 1960. In 1961, the British part merged with it to form the-then Federal Republic of Cameroon.
In 1972, a new constitution replaced the federation with a unitary state, the United Republic of Cameroon.
bik/mm, ipj (Reuters, AFP, dpa)