Representatives of Cameroon's government have held talks with the main leaders of an Anglophone separatist group for the first time since the conflict began in 2017, a separatist leader and two security sources said on Friday.
Julius Ayuk Tabe, the most prominent separatist leader who is currently serving a life sentence in prison for charges including "terrorism", said the meeting took place on Thursday to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire.
Violence broke out in 2017 following a government crackdown on peaceful protests by Anglophone lawyers and teachers who complained of being marginalised by the French-speaking majority.
The fighting has since caused more than 3,000 deaths and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Last year, Switzerland mediated talks between the government and exiled separatist leaders, but those leaders are considered less influential than Tabe and the discussions did not produce any significant results.
Tabe, the self-declared president of an independent English-speaking state the separatists call Ambazonia, said nine separatist leaders participated in the meeting, which followed calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire.
"Be reassured that we remain committed to the restoration of the independence of the homeland," he said in a statement, without providing further details about the substance of the talks.
The nine leaders are self-declared members of the "interim government of Ambazonia". All are in jail in the capital Yaounde, sentenced last August on "terrorism" charges.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
One of the security sources who confirmed the meeting said the authorities' openness to talks reflected the fatigue of the population after three years of conflict that have failed to produce a clear victor.
"This war has made us see the resilience of the Anglophones from an ideological point of view," he said, adding that international pressure to end the conflict had also forced the government's hand.
Cameroon's linguistic divide harks 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.
President Paul Biya's government has previously refused to negotiate with the separatist leaders.
It held a "national dialogue" on the conflict in October, but most separatist groups refused to participate, many pointing out their leaders remained in prison.
In early March, the UN called for a ceasefire in the two regions, in part to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.
But the appeal went unheeded, with military operations even seeming to intensify - the army said it killed 24 separatists in two raids last month.
The sudden softening towards negotiation therefore took many by surprise.
In the statement sent to AFP news agency, the separatist leaders said "no war has ever been wrapped up in the battlefield" and that "real, sustainable peace and independence are a product of the negotiation table".
The statement, which is addressed to separatist armed fighters, said the Thursday meeting was "an initial confidence-building procedure" and that the leaders' position on a negotiated ceasefire was made "clear and unambiguous" to the government.
Cameroon's Anglophone protest movement is fragmented into several groups, with the most radical not recognising the "interim government of Ambazonia" and refusing any discussion with the government.
© Al Jazeera 2020