An Islamist Group Used Child Soldiers In Mozambique Attacks, Says Human Rights Watch

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — An Islamist group operating in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province used boys as young as 13 in attacks on a town last week and residents who were forced to flee the fighting recognized some of the child soldiers as their missing relatives, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

Al-Shabab, which is affiliated to the Islamic State group, has previously been accused by UN agencies of kidnapping children and using them as soldiers in its insurgency in the region, which began in 2017. A surge of attacks by insurgents in March left at least 70 children missing, according to local authorities and a group of aid agencies.

Witnesses told the rights group that dozens of child soldiers were used in the attacks and were seen carrying AK-style assault rifles and ammunition belts. Two people from the same family said they recognized their 13-year-old nephew among the children.

“I saw him with my own eyes,” Abu Rachide, a resident of the town, told Human Rights Watch. He said the boy waved at him but marched on. Rachide’s sister said the boy, who went missing earlier in the year, appeared to be taking instructions from older fighters.

“I kept wondering how he became a fighter like that in just four months,” she told HRW.

The latest attacks on the town of Macomia began Friday and continued until the next day. Islamist fighters looted shops and warehouses for food and exchanged fire with Mozambican and South African soldiers before retreating, HRW and Mozambican media reports said.

At least 10 people, mostly soldiers, were reportedly killed in the latest fighting and about 700 residents fled to nearby forests to escape the attacks, according to the HRW report.

Recruiting children under the age of 15 as soldiers is a war crime under international law. In February judges at the International Criminal Court granted reparations of more than 52 million euros ($56 million) to thousands of victims of a convicted commander of a Ugandan rebel group, which included former child soldiers.

The attacks in Mozambique came days before the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, which investigates environmental crimes, published a multi-year investigation alleging that millions of tons of timber had been exported illegally from Cabo Delgado to China since 2017 and the profits had been used to finance the insurgency.

The EIA said Tuesday that its investigation found that Chinese traders purchase “conflict timber” from insurgents in Cabo Delgado “and export it alongside other wood” in violation of Mozambique's log export ban.

South Africa deployed soldiers to Cabo Delgado as part of a regional force to stem the insurgency, which began in 2017. In 2020, Islamist fighters beheaded dozens of people, many of them children, as the violence spiraled. After a period of relative inactivity, the insurgents launched a new wave of attacks this year.

The regional troops announced that they had begun withdrawing from their positions ahead of a July deadline, although soldiers from Rwanda are expected to remain under a separate bilateral deal with Mozambique.

Aid agencies say the conflict forced more than a million people to flee their homes since it started in October 2017 and thousands have been killed. The insurgency also threatens a $20 billion natural gas project in Cabo Delgado.


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