An anti-gay crusade has begun in Cameroon after newspapers accused more than 50 prominent figures of homosexuality.

Homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon as in many African countries, with jail sentences of up to five years, and editors say they are on a campaign against “deviant behaviour”.

The Guardian revealed that lists have included names of government ministers, news readers, singers and sports stars.

One tabloid newspaper, L’Anecdote sold out within hours and vendors resorted to selling photocopies. The paper’s publisher, Jean Pierre Amougou Belinga, told Reuters. “We could not remain silent. We had to ring the alarm bell. We don’t regret it and we have to do it again . . . in spite of numerous death threats that me and my journalists have had.”

The tabloid La Meteo launched the campaign to out” gays in Cameroon at the end of January with the publication of a three-page dossier of names, following a vehement denunciation by the Roman Catholic archbishop, Victor Tonye Bakot, at Christmas.

Archbishop Bakot criticised the European Union for giving legitimacy to homosexuality. He lashed out at those calling for same sex marriages and derided gay people who wanted to adopt children.

The archbishop accused Cameroonians of using homosexuality in order to advance their careers and earn more money. The archbishop’s arguments were largely repeated by the newspapers.

The lists have been attacked by the communications minister, Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, one of those named.

He has threatened legal action and warned that the newspapers risked breaking up families. “Whether heterosexual or homosexual, sexual intercourse takes place in an intimate environment between two persons,” he said.

Others named have said they were consulting their lawyers. Two of those named have written letters to the newspapers denying the reports. So far the Cameroonian ‘s president, Paul Biya, has not entered into the controversy.

According to some traditional beliefs, homosexual people are said to be cursed or bewitched.

Same-sex intercourse carries a penalty of six months to five years in prison and fines of up to $370 (pounds 210) under Cameroonian law.

Peter Tatchell, from gay rights group, Outrage, told PinkNews.co.uk: “We are supporting a gay asylum seeker from Cameroon who was forced to flee the country after threats to kill him to stop the exposure of his partner who is a senior government official.”

“This anti gay witch hunt is partly motivated by homophobia and partly by political factions fighting and rival clans and business interests. We are urging lesbians and gay men to press the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, their local MEPs and the European Commission to protest to the Government of Cameroon.”

“They should threaten to suspend trade and aid,” he added.

Meanwhile, South Africa is to become the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage following the ruling in December by its top court that it was unconstitutional to deny gay people the right to marry.