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YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Cameroon's army has freed 18 hostages, including seven Swiss and five Italian tourists, who were kidnapped by English-speaking separatists in the restive southwest region, the government spokesman said.
Issa Tchiroma Bakary said on state television late on Tuesday that the 18 hostages - who also included six Cameroonian municipal officials - had been abducted on Monday and were freed hours later by the army's elite Rapid Intervention Batallion.
The group was abducted on its way to the Twin Lakes in Mount Manengouba National Park, about 300 km (186 miles) northwest of the capital Yaounde, he said.
The kidnapping occurred on the same day that Prime Minister Philemon Yang was chairing a meeting with the tourism board to promote tourism in the Central African country, state television said on Wednesday.
Bakary said the group was kidnapped by "secessionist terrorists", a term used by the government to refer to the English-speaking separatists who want to carve out a new state called Ambazonia from mainly French-speaking Cameroon.
The Ambazonian Defence Force (ADF), the main Anglophone separatist group battling state security forces, denied any involvement in the kidnappings.
"ADF does not take hostages. ADF arrest enablers and collaborators and does not arrest foreign nationals," Cho Ayaba, a leader of the Ambazonian Governing Council, to which the ADF is loosely affiliated, told Reuters.
The ADF has been responsible for most of the shootings that have killed more than 20 state security agents in a year-long uprising against President Paul Biya's Francophone government that they say has marginalised the English-speaking minority.
However, a number of smaller armed groups have emerged in recent months in reaction to a government crackdown that has included razing villages in rural Anglophone Cameroon near the Nigerian border.
(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister and Gareth Jones)