The United States last week sent military specialists to train the Mozambican army to battle an Islamic extremist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province.
The extremists have held the port town of Mocimboa da Praia since August, and in recent months they have attacked several villages and made it unsafe to travel to other centres by road.
The extremists are allied with the Islamic State group but are known locally as al-Shabab, although they have no known ties to the extremist rebels in Somalia who go by that name.
The conflict is in a resource-rich area where huge deposits of liquified natural gas have been discovered and the French gas firm Total has embarked on a multibillion-dollar investment.
The U.S. government on March 15 announced that it had launched a two-month “Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) training programme.”
“U.S. Special Operations Forces will train Mozambican marines for two months to support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. In addition to training, the U.S. government provided medical and communications equipment,” the U.S. embassy in Maputo announced.
U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) Deputy Commander Colonel Richard Schmidt represented the U.S. Department of Defence during a ceremony to announce the operation, while Major General Ramiro Ramos Tulcidás represented the government of Mozambique.
The embassy statement added: “The United States prioritizes the respect for human rights, protection of civilians, and engagement with civil society in all security assistance. The United States is committed to supporting Mozambique with a multifaceted and holistic approach to counter and prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.
“This approach addresses socioeconomic development issues as well as the security situation. Civilian protection, human rights, and community engagement are central to U.S. cooperation and are foundational to effectively counter the Islamic State in Mozambique.”
Northern Mozambique’s humanitarian crisis is growing rapidly, with nearly 670,000 people displaced by the insurgency, according to international aid groups.
Children as young as 11 are being beheaded by the rebels, according to workers for Save the Children, who interviewed grief-stricken families.
The number of displaced has dramatically increased by more than 500,000 in the past year and nearly one million people are in need of food aid, according to the U.N.
A high number of the displaced are dependent upon the generosity of already poor families, with shortages of water, food, and sanitation widespread.
More than 2,600 people have died in the conflict since it started in 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Families fleeing the violence hike for days and nights on paths through the jungle, coming across the remains of those who died on the perilous journey or who were killed by the insurgents, according to Save the Children workers who interviewed survivors.
The rapidly increasing numbers of displaced people come as Cabo Delgado province is still recovering from severe cyclones in 2019.
“Reports of attacks on children sicken us to our core,” said Chance Briggs, Save the Children’s country director in Mozambique. “Our staff have been brought to tears when hearing the stories of suffering told by mothers in displacement camps. This violence has to stop, and displaced families need to be supported as they find their bearings and recover from the trauma.”
Last week U.S. President Joe Biden designated Mozambique’s extremist rebels as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” imposing wide-ranging sanctions on the group.
War crimes have been committed by all sides fighting in Mozambique’s conflict, including the jihadi rebels, government forces and a South African mercenary outfit that provides helicopter support to government troops, according to international rights group Amnesty International.