MAPUTO/WASHINGTON - Islamist insurgents have captured a strategic port in the restive province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, local military officials told VOA.
The takeover of the port of Mocimboa da Praia on Wednesday came after five days of fierce clashes between the insurgents and Mozambican security forces. The insurgents still held the port on Thursday, according to Mozambican officials.
Since 2017, Islamist militants, some of which are affiliated with the Islamic State terror group, have been carrying out attacks against civilians and Mozambican armed forces. The violence has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced over 210,000 others, according to the United Nations.
IS-affiliated media released images showing dead bodies allegedly of Mozambican soldiers, as well as weapons and ammunition seized from the military.
In April 2019, IS claimed the so-called Central African Province, known as IS-CAP. Terror attacks carried out by IS-CAP have so far been limited to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The recent fighting has reportedly left at least 55 Mozambican military personnel killed and 90 others wounded.
The port of Mocimboa da Praia is a strategic site in Cabo Delgado, particularly for gas companies operating in the resource-rich region.
Several foreign oil and gas firms such as ExxonMobil and Total have investment projects in the area, but they have largely been disrupted due to militant attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.
The insurgents reportedly took control of the port after a Mozambican naval force defending the vicinity ran out of ammunition.
A military source told VOA that a private South African military unit of the Dyck Advisory Group, which provides air support to the Mozambican government in combating insurgents, tried to join the battle. But its involvement was minimal, due to a helicopter refueling stop in Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s provincial capital.
“I don’t understand why [the towns of] Macomia, Mueda or even Palma were not used” for the helicopter refueling, said the source, who has been embedded with the military in Cabo Delgado’s operations.
During the last battle, the insurgents sank one of the HV32 interceptor boats in the port that belonged to the Mozambican military, the source told VOA.
Eric Morier-Genoud, a Mozambique expert at Queen's University Belfast, says while it is not the first time that Mocimboa da Praia has fallen under the control of militants, the "difference is that the government has reinforcement and mercenaries, and they still lost."
"The insurgents said they wanted to stay at once and make it their capital," he told VOA.
Many residents of the affected areas in Cabo Delgado have sought refuge in the nearby province of Nampula.
Salome Said, 70, left Macomia when it was recently attacked by the insurgents.
“Their intention was to kill me,” she told VOA. One of them said, ‘Leave her. She is an old woman.’ That was how I escaped. But my house was set on fire. I lost everything, and ran away from my village to find peace here in Nampula,” she said.
Said now lives with her niece. She said the militants killed her 16-year-old grandson and kidnapped other young people, adding that “being alive is a miracle.”
There are about 10,000 displaced people, mostly women and children, from Cabo Delgado who now live in Nampula.
Caritas, a charity organization affiliated with the Catholic Church, has provided aid to the displaced families in Nampula.
Orlando Fausto, a bishop who works with Caritas, said his organization has supplied food and other essential needs.
Despite the difficult situation due to the pandemic, “There are more people who are volunteering to make some contribution,” Fausto told VOA.
Adina Suhele contributed to this report from Nampula, Mozambique.