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Cameroon votes in presidential polls as conflict rages

Alexis Huguet, AFP | Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary general of the presidency, is the first voter in the polling station where the incumbent President is expected to vote in Bastos neighbourhood in the capital Yaounde, on October 7, 2018.

Cameroonians head to the polls on Sunday with octogenarian President Paul Biya seeking a seventh term against a backdrop of unprecedented violence in the country's English-speaking regions.

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The vote follows a last-minute opposition unity bid to dislodge the 85-year-old incumbent.

Two leading opponents have formed the first electoral union since 1992, but talks between the wider opposition field to create a "super-coalition" to deny Biya another seven years were apparently unsuccessful.

Cameroon's 6.5 million eligible voters will cast their ballots as the toll continues to mount in the anglophone southwest and northwest, which have been rocked by a separatist insurgency launched a year ago against the mainly francophone state.

Biya seeks to extend rule in Cameroon elections

The violence has claimed the lives of at least 420 civilians, 175 members of the security forces and an unknown number of separatists, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.

At least three armed separatists were shot dead by security forces in the city of
Bamenda in northwest Cameroon as they tried to disrupt voting in the presidential election on Sunday, a security source said.

In Buea, capital of the southwest, three separatists of the so-called Ambazonia Republic were gunned down on Friday while a priest was executed by soldiers on Thursday, according to witnesses.

The far north is also mired in insecurity, as Nigeria-based Boko Haram fighters mount attacks despite efforts by the US to equip and train Cameroon's military to battle the jihadists.

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'Massive fraud'?

In a rare coordinated political manoeuvre, one of the key opposition frontrunners, Maurice Kamto, agreed late Friday to a unity deal between his Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) and the People's Development Front (FDP), meaning he will stand on behalf of both parties.

It is the first such tactical pre-election tie-up since John Fru Ndi stood as the sole opposition candidate in 1992 in polls that his supporters say he won, but allege were manipulated to hand victory to Biya.

But it is unclear whether the eleventh hour deal was done in time to affect the vote, which runs from 07:00 GMT until 17:00 GMT Sunday.

"This alliance, though interesting for the vitality of Cameroonian democracy, may have arrived too late," said Hans de Marie Heungoup, an ICG researcher.

Kamto's MRC has warned that a "massive fraud" has been put in motion to secure a Biya win.

"We're not preparing for war, but wherever there is fraud, there will be a firm response," said MRC spokesman Paul-Eric Kingue.

But the government hit back, apparently in response to the MRC, saying that it would "not tolerate any disorder before, during or after the presidential vote".

The opposition have long accused the authorities of working to reelect the president, pointing to his party's slick rallies, social media campaigns and massive distribution of Biya-branded merchandise.

But despite the ubiquity of Biya's posters across Cameroon, he has been virtually invisible during the campaign except for a single event last weekend.

'We need dialogue'

It is unclear if polling will proceed normally across Cameroon's English-speaking regions where separatists hold a "significant" amount of territory, according to the ICG, and have threatened to disrupt the vote.

In a bid to limit disruption to the polls, authorities have imposed stringent security measures including the suspension of all inter-regional road, rail and air travel from 17:00 GMT on Saturday.

International borders were also due to be sealed ahead of polling day, said a decree seen by AFP.

"I hope the separatists and the government can come together and dialogue -- we need dialogue," said George Enow Orock, director of the regional hospital in Buea which is rocked by almost daily clashes.

Orock has seen between five and ten gunshot victims admitted every week since the start of the crisis, compared to an average of one a year before.

A total of 246,000 people have fled their homes in the southwest and 25,000 have left the country altogether for Nigeria, according to UN figures.

It is thought that the displaced will struggle to cast ballots which could favour Biya as anglophones have traditionally backed the Social Democratic Front (SDF) party of candidate Joshua Osih.

Results must be posted within 15 calendar days of the poll.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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