MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — Mozambique’s armed forces have killed 50 Islamic extremist fighters this week in two battles in the country's north where the insurgents have launched 11 attacks this month, the government said Thursday.
The attacks show a marked increase in extremist violence in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province, causing considerable trouble for the government and the foreign companies investing billions of dollars in projects to produce liquefied natural gas from gas fields off the Indian Ocean coast.
The extremists, who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group, risk giving Mozambique “the type of threat that Boko Haram has become in Nigeria,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy told journalists earlier this month.
“Boko Haram was just a small movement, and because of the way the Nigerian government initially responded to it, it grew into a very serious threat,” Nagy said, adding that Mozambique should take a different approach.
Mozambique said its armed forces this week killed 42 extremists in Mocímboa da Praia district and eight in Quissanga town.
There has been a three-fold increase in the number of violent incidents in Cabo Delgado in the first four months of 2020 versus the same period last year, according to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Mozambique’s most northeastern province, Cabo Delgado is where ExxonMobil and Total are developing the gas projects. There are also lucrative ruby and graphite mining ventures.
About 1,100 people have been killed since the extremists launched their violent campaign in October 2017, according to ACLED.
The conflict accelerated in late March when the fighters took control of the strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia for 24 hours. Two days later, on March 25, they took another coastal town, Quissanga, and stayed there for several weeks while trying to win support from Muslims there and in the surrounding district, according to local reports.
At the same time, another band of the insurgents headed inland toward Mueda, a historic military base and the hometown of Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi. They suffered heavy losses in battles along the way and failed to reach the town, according to Mozambique’s military and defence forces.
The fighters on April 7 killed 52 young men in Xitaxi village, allegedly taking revenge for their comrades who were killed, the government said.
The government said the rebels also killed an undisclosed number of civilians on Ibo island, denying accusations by the opposition party, Renamo, that state forces had killed them.
Government forces are pursuing a campaign against the extremists with support from helicopters provided and operated by a private South African security company, Dyck Advisory Group, led by retired Zimbabwean colonel Lionel Dyck. The air support is credited with helping the Mozambican military turn back the insurgents before they reached the provincial capital of Pemba on April 28.
There is a “dire need” for the government's counter-offensive but “a sustainable solution demands comprehensive government intervention which attends to years of social and governance neglect,” said Jasmine Opperman, an analyst with ACLED.
The military has a limited capacity, Opperman said. “Insurgents will merely pull back, focus on sustained winning of hearts and minds, and await time to resurface."
The government can’t afford to incur civilian casualties that would lose it local support, she said.
While saying the fighters have similarities to other insurgents in Nigeria, Somalia and West Africa's Sahel region, Opperman said Mozambique's group is unique.
“Cabo Delgado is giving birth to its own unique brand of extremism.” she said.
The Mozambican government should have headed off the conflict with “inclusive development, with greater social, territorial and ethnic equity in the distribution of resources,” João Mosca, director of Maputo-based think tank the Center for the Study of the Rural Environment, wrote in a recent paper.
“Military solutions are not possible,” he said, warning that “they bring high human, material, and financial cost, without generating development.”