Cameroon authorities have regularly tortured and held incommunicado detainees arrested in the government’s crackdown on an English-speaking armed separatist movement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday.

The New York-based rights group in a report urged the United Nations to put Cameroon’s situation on its agenda and to condemn abuses against people arrested on suspicion of having ties to separatists.

Since 2017, fighting between government troops and anglophone separatists demanding independence in the southwest and northwest regions has killed hundreds and forced nearly 500 000 people from their homes.

English-speaking communities chafe at what they see as discrimination from the French-speaking majority. But the government rejects demands for autonomy and has dispatched thousands of troops in a crackdown.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented 26 cases of incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance between January 2018 and January 2019 at the State Defence Secretariat (SED) detention centre in the capital Yaounde.

It said security forces at SED had “severely beaten and used near-drowning to extract confessions from detainees”.

“Over the past year, the security forces in Cameroon have used torture without fear of repercussion,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for HRW.

The report cited former detainees who say suspects had been tortured or humiliated to force them to confess or sign statements they were not allowed to read or were unable to read in French.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, returning from a four day trip to Cameroon, said on Monday civilians caught in the conflict between troops and separatists were increasingly vulnerable to violations from both sides.

“I believe there is a clear – if possibly short – window of opportunity to arrest the crises that have led to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as the killings and brutal human rights violations and abuses,” Bachelet said in a statement.

She said any violations by authorities were counterproductive to the fight against militants and urged the armed forces to earn “the trust of local populations, and to do that they must keep scrupulously within the framework of international law and standards”.

Bachelet had met with President Paul Biya and also discussed the lack of access for human rights defenders to Anglophone regions.

In April, HRW said one its researchers was denied entry into the country in what the group says was an attempt by authorities to hinder reporting on abuses.