Five months after foreign soldiers arrived to help Mozambique battle an insurgency in northern Cabo Delgado province, militants have widened their battleground in an evolving conflict, witnesses and analysts say.
Having been pushed from some of their traditional turf, insurgent attacks have spilled over into neighbouring Niassa province, as well as across the border into Tanzania, they say.
And their tactics remain brutal.
Over the last week, insurgents set fire to dozens of homes, beheading one person and shooting two others dead in Cabo Delgado’s Macomia district, according to residents.
After gunning down one elderly woman, they threw her corpse into a burning building, leaving only charred remains for her grieving family, resident Abudo Sitaupe told AFP.
“The people are seeking refuge,” he said.
Islamic State-linked militants have been wreaking havoc in gas-rich Cabo Delgado since 2017, raiding towns and villages.
A major coordinated attack on the port city of Palma in March that killed dozens and displaced thousands prompted foreign intervention.
Mozambique’s neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda have deployed troops, while US and European forces are training up Maputo’s military.
But almost as alarming as the latest attacks, witnesses said, was the total absence of security forces.
“The army was stationed in a nearby village,” said another witness, who added that he belonged to a community vigilante group.
“The people living in the surrounding villages are going to the city,” Judite Paulino, a trader who lives in Macomia town, told AFP.
“They are scared.”
– Spreading out –
Macomia is a coastal district in Cabo Delgado, the mostly Muslim province that is home to Africa’s largest-ever single foreign investment: a $20-billion gas development by France’s Total.
That project, along with other multi-billion-dollar deals, have been on hold since the attack on Palma, the town nearest the offshore gas fields.
“There are rumours of instability in Niassa province in Mecula, clear that up quickly,” Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said, during a police officers’ graduation ceremony in the central province of Sofala on Friday.
While claiming to want to form a caliphate, the insurgents have found supporters among residents, angry that they have yet to benefit from the enormous investments in their region.
With 3,100 foreign fighters at its side, Mozambique has reclaimed Palma and promised that the situation is improving.
“The priority of the Rwandans is to protect the Total installation and things around Palma,” said Johan Viljoen, a researcher with the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, part of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
He returned last week from a visit to the region and said he had also been “getting reports of attacks across the border in Tanzania, and into neighbouring provinces.”
Borges Nhamire, a Mozambique analyst for the Institute for Security Studies, said that the insurgents appear dispersed into smaller groups that are now staging attacks across a broader area.
“This is something that was expected, that the conflict would evolve, and that it would imply that the insurgents spill into small groups and to find a way to survive,” he told AFP.
“Tanzania and the northern bank of the Ruvuma River was also the new target of a small group,” he added.
– ‘To be expected’ –
In neighbouring Niassa province, insurgents attacked a hospital and looted shops, witnesses told AFP this week.
“People are scared and want to leave,” said Mecula town resident Carlitos Mucuna.
At least 3,578 people, including 1,575 civilians, have been killed since the insurgency emerged, according to US-based conflict tracking organisation, ACLED.
More than 800,000 others have been displaced, according to government and UN agencies.
While the foreign forces have helped Mozambique reclaim key towns, little work has been done to either engage politically with the insurgents or to rein in the leaders.
“In a sense, this is to be expected with an insurgency like this,” said Darren Olivier, director at African Defence newsletter.
“Neither Rwanda nor SADC have really harmed the group’s leadership or strength, and they have been able to melt away into deeper rural territories and conduct opportunistic strikes.”