Yaoundé. Cameroon President Paul Biya on Tuesday announced that he intends to hold a major "national dialogue" later this month in a bid to put an end to the conflict between security forces and armed separatists from the anglophone minority in the west.
Over the past two years, the francophone-majority country has been mired in the unrest which has left more than 2,000 people dead as English-speaking separatists demand independence in the Northwest and Southwest regions.
More than 500,000 people have been forced from their homes as a result according to the Human Rights Watch group.
"I have decided to convene, from the end of this month, a major national dialogue to allow us... to examine the ways and means to respond to the deeply-held aspirations of the populations in the Northwest and Southwest, but also in all the other component parts of our great nation," the 86-year-old president said in an address to the nation aired on national television and radio.
Biya, who has been in power for 37 years, reiterated his offer of a "pardon" to any separatists who voluntarily lay down their arms, while vowing that those who refuse to do so will face "the full force of the law" as well as the country's security and defence forces.
He said the talks in late September would be presided over by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute and will bring together representatives of numerous factions, including security forces and the armed separatists.
Dion Ngute would hold "broad consultations" including delegations who would meet with diaspora in the coming days, the president said, without saying where a potential summit would be held.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "welcomes the announcement" and "reiterates the readiness of the United Nations to support the dialogue process," his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
Guterres "encourages the government of Cameroon to ensure that the process is inclusive" and "calls on all Cameroonian stakeholders, including the diaspora, to participate in this effort," the statement said.
- Separatist leader jailed -
English speakers -- who make up roughly one fifth of Cameroon's 24 million inhabitants -- mostly live in the two regions that were formerly a British colony until they were folded into post-independence Cameroon in 1961.
Anger at perceived discrimination by francophones against anglophones in justice, education and the economy has built for years.
The current crisis began in late 2016, and escalated a year later when English-speaking militants symbolically declared the creation of the independent "Republic of Ambazonia" in the two regions.
The government responded with a brutal crackdown, and the separatists in turn have mounted a campaign of attacks on state buildings, including schools, as well as shootings and kidnappings.
Biya has consistently rejected demands to give the English-speaking regions greater autonomy or a return to federalism.
In a bid to foster conciliation, in December last year Biya ordered the release of 289 people arrested in connection with the crisis.
However in August, Julius Ayuk Tabe, the leader of the separatists -- and self-proclaimed president of "Ambazonia" -- was sentenced to life in prison along with nine of his supporters. The conviction was seen by many as a blow to potential talks between the two sides.
Separatist leaders organised a shutdown in the anglophone regions for two weeks in protest, closing schools and shops.
"The secessionists' propaganda wanted to present recent court decisions made against a number of our compatriots, in the context of this crisis, as an obstacle to the planned dialogue. That is not the case," Biya said in his speech.
Long before his conviction, Ayuk Tabe said he was open to dialogue, asking for the release of himself and other English-speaking prisoners. He has also called for the army to withdraw from the anglophone regions, which is off the table for Yaounde.