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Mozambique insurgency: Militants beheading children, aid agency reports

Aid agency Save the Children says Islamist militants are beheading children as young as 11 in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado.

AFP image captionNearly a million people face hunger because of the conflict, Save the Children says
Nearly a million people face hunger because of the conflict, Save the Children says

One mother told the agency she had had to watch as her 12-year-old son was killed in this way close to where she was hiding with her other children.

More than 2,500 people have been killed and 700,000 have fled their homes since an Islamist insurgency began in 2017.

The militants have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.

In its report, Save the Children said it had spoken to displaced families who reported gruesome scenes in the gas-rich province.

What did they say?

One mother, whose name was withheld to protect her identity, said her eldest child had been beheaded near where she and her other children were hiding.

“That night our village was attacked and houses were burned,” she said.

“When it all started, I was at home with my four children. We tried to escape to the woods but they took my eldest son and beheaded him. We couldn’t do anything because we would be killed too.”

Another woman said her son had been killed by militants while she and her other three children had been forced to flee.

“After my 11-year-old son was killed, we understood that it was no longer safe to stay in my village,” she said.

“We fled to my father’s house in another village, but a few days later the attacks started there too.”

Chance Briggs, Save the Children’s country director in Mozambique, said the reports of attacks on children “sicken us to our core”.

“Our staff have been brought to tears when hearing the stories of suffering told by mothers in displacement camps,” he said.

The United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions described the militants’ actions as “cruel beyond words”.

Who are the militants?

The insurgents are known locally as al-Shabab, which means The Youth in Arabic. This reflects that it receives its support mostly from young unemployed people in the predominantly Muslim region of Cabo Delgado.

A group with a similar name has existed in Somalia for more than a decade. It is affiliated to al-Qaeda, unlike the Mozambican group which allied itself with the rival IS movement in 2019.

IS sees the insurgents as being part of what it calls its Central Africa Province. It released images last year showing fighters in Cabo Delgado with AK-47 rifles and rocket propelled grenades.

This alarmed counter-terrorism experts, as it suggested that global jihadists were exploiting a local insurgency for their own gains.

What do the insurgents want?

Some analysts believe the insurgency roots lay in socio-economic grievances, with many locals complaining that they have benefited little from the province’s ruby and gas industries.

In a video last year, one militant leader said: “We occupy [the towns] to show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses.”

The man spoke about Islam and his desire for an “Islamic government, not a government of unbelievers”, but he also cited alleged abuses by Mozambique’s military, and repeatedly complained that the government was “unfair”.

Mr Briggs told the BBC World Service it was difficult to determine exactly what was behind the violence in one of the poorest countries in the world.

“Cabo Delgado is the poorest province in Mozambique and yet there’s tremendous mineral resources there and there’s a sense by some that the resources are not being shared equally so that seems to be a driver of the conflict,” he said.

“But frankly speaking there’s no manifesto and so it’s hard to understand the exact motivations but what we see is that the insurgents are trying to drive people out.

“They co-opt young people in to joining them as conscripts and if they refuse they are killed and sometimes beheaded. They chase people away. It’s really hard to see what is the end game.”

After visiting Cabo Delgado’s capital Pemba last year, a delegation from the South African Bishop’s Conference said:

“Almost everyone spoken to agrees that the war is about multinational corporations gaining control of the province’s mineral and gas resources, by depopulating the coastal areas.”

What else has been happening in Cabo Delgado?

It is not the first time that there have been reports of beheadings in the region.

Last November, state media reported that more than 50 people had been beheaded at a football ground in Cabo Delgado.

In April last year, dozens more were beheaded or shot dead in an attack on a village.

Human rights groups say security forces have also carried human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings, during operations against the jihadists.

Mozambique’s government has appealed for international help to quell the insurgency.

On Monday, US embassy officials in the capital, Maputo, said American military personnel would spend two months training soldiers in Mozambique, as well as providing “medical and communications equipment”.

“Civil protection, human rights, and community involvement are central to US co-operation and are critical to effectively combating Islamic State in Mozambique,” an embassy statement said. BBC News