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Islamist rebels seize key Mozambique port

Displaced people fleeing violence in the province of Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique.RICARDO FRANCO / EFE

A humiliating defeat for the Mozambican Army and a strategic capture for the insurgents of the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, the Islamist group in northern Mozambique. Mocimboa da Praia, the small port city, has fallen after a series of attacks on the surrounding towns and clashes with the Mozambican Army, which has had to withdraw, according to local witnesses, due to lack of ammunition. Dozens of people, many of them used as human shields by the rebels, have died during the fighting.

The Mozambican Army has confirmed the loss of the city and has communicated that at the moment “there are operations underway to neutralize the terrorists”, who, according to the same statement, are using the population “as a shield.” Civilians from the affected area speak of deserted villages and hundreds of displaced people.

Mocimboa da Praia is located in the northern province of Cabo Delgado – the area of ​​large natural gas reserves – and many cargo ships use its port, some 60 kilometers away, to transport supplies to several million-dollar projects, including those of the multinational Eni , Total and ExxonMobil. His capture by the Islamist group is a serious blow to the credibility of the Mozambican Army, which has minimized the advance of the insurgency from the beginning, and certifies that Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (also known as Al Shabab, although he has no ties to the Somali group) has more and more resources and strength.

The Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique began in 2017 – with an attack, precisely, in Mocimboa – and has been advancing by capturing towns, remote areas and assaulting military posts (to steal weapons). But its offensives have intensified this year, after joining the Islamic State that, since then, has claimed responsibility for several of the attacks of its new franchise and this week was reporting, through its media, that the group had taken two military bases and obtained submachine guns and grenade launchers.

According to the Armed Conflict Event and Location Data Project (ACLED), more than 1,500 people have died in Cabo Delgado as a result of “organized violence” since October 2017, including more than 960 civilians, and there are more than 300,000 displaced.

The taking of Mocimboa, a strategic and strongly defended city, marks the entrance to a new phase. During the battle, the militants used grenade launchers, sunk a patrol boat and managed to defeat the Mozambican Army, although it also had the support of a South African private security company, including a helicopter.

More than 2,500 kilometers from the country’s capital, Maputo, and sharing the border with Tanzania, the province of Cabo Delgado is a province with an Islamic majority in a country where Islam is a minority and more and more young people find in radicalization an answer to the Central government and the military forces, which have ignored and violated them, respectively, for years. There is a long list of cases of military repression, accusations of Islamophobia and contempt for Northerners. As in northern Nigeria or Mali, radical Islam drinks from decades of frustrations.

In 2010, the third largest gas reserves in Africa were discovered in this area, also rich in precious stones. The gas will not be extracted before 2022, and the benefits for the Government will not arrive until 2028, but the large multinationals are already working hard.