With violence by armed groups spreading beyond Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado into neighboring Niassa province, President Filipe Nyusi on Thursday cautioned against panic.
That comment followed the president's assurance, at the opening of a new road Monday in Cabo Delgado's Balama district, that young soldiers in Niassa "are waiting for the terrorists." Nyusi attributed what he called "expanding pockets" of violence to insurgents on the run from a military offensive by Mozambican forces, bolstered by troops from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community regional bloc.
Insurgents linked to the Islamic State have staged attacks since October 2017 in Cabo Delgado, a coastal province rich in natural gas reserves and host to an estimated $60 billion worth of international investment in gas projects. The violence has left at least 3,100 dead, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which tracks political violence around much of the world.
Conflict there also has displaced nearly 856,000 people, nearly half of them children, according to UNICEF.
As recently as Wednesday, militants looted five villages in Cabo Delgado's Macomia district, burning several huts and allegedly beheading a man working in a field near Nova Zambézia village, witnesses and other sources told VOA Portuguese. Authorities did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
Attacks in Niassa, the province directly to Cabo Delgado's west, have been reported since at least mid-November, according to ACLED.
For instance, suspected Islamist militants struck November 28 at the village of Naulala-1 in Niassa's northeast Mecula district.
The attackers were armed with four guns "and the rest had machetes and there were some ladies with them," local resident Gabriel Naita told VOA Portuguese, adding that "they started shooting in the air and people fled. ... They looted food and the health post and took medicines."
Residents did not mention any civilian injuries or deaths. VOA sought more details from the Niassa provincial command for the Mozambican Republic Police, but a spokeswoman, Mirza Mecuande, would neither confirm nor deny it occurred.
'The conflict is not over'
Mozambican authorities have been closemouthed "as the insurgency began to launch attacks in Niassa province" last month, according to Sam Ratner, an ACLED senior researcher focused on Mozambique.
"The Mozambican government effectively denied that this was happening," maintaining that its interventions, aided by Rwanda and SADC, "have been successful and that we're nearing the end" of conflict in Cabo Delgado, Ratner said. While the allied forces have made some security gains, he added, "This new development of attacks in Niassa province and expanded attacks in Cabo Delgado seems to suggest that that's not actually true -- that actually the conflict is not over, is perhaps not close to being over."
But in recent days, both Nyusi and Mozambique's top police official acknowledged the insurgency had breached Cabo Delgado's borders -- perhaps months earlier.
Aside from the president's comments, at an event Sunday to launch a new crime prevention effort, General Police Commander Bernardino Rafael said that the Mozambican Defense and Security Forces had killed an insurgent leader while on a patrol in Niassa's Mecula district.
"Our patrol walked into an ambush, and in the ensuing fight one of the terrorists was shot," Rafael said. " ... We concluded that the terrorists had moved on to Niassa province."
Rafael, who said he had received many queries about Niassa, did not specify when the incident occurred, nor did he comment further.
August 20 attack
But Cabo Ligado -- a Mozambique conflict observatory run by ACLED, Zitamar News and Mediafax -- noted in a report posted Wednesday that Rafael could have referred to the August 20 "ambush of a Mozambican police vehicle on the road in Mavago district. The attack, which was not confirmed to be the work of insurgents at the time, resulted in the death of one member of the police and injuries to others," Cabo Ligado reported.
It also said the insurgent who died may have been Ali Cassimo, an Islamic leader from Mecula.
The insurgency is connected to the Islamic State, but "the nature of that connection is a little bit unclear," said Ratner, of ACLED. He said insurgents identify as an Islamist group whose "core grievances are really about the lack of control that local people have over their lives." The insurgents propose wresting local control from the central government in Maputo and instead having "an Islamist form of self-government in the north."
The U.S. State Department's newly released Country Reports on Terrorism 2020 said that in that year in Mozambique, "an estimated 1,500 deaths were due to ISIS-Mozambique attacks."
The report also noted challenges with border security in northern Mozambique: "Terrorists are known to cross the porous border with Tanzania, which serves as a recruitment and transit point for terrorist and criminal organizations."
Observers long have warned that the insurgency likely could not be contained to Cabo Delgado. In early January, Niassa's chief police commander, Arnaldo Chefo, expressed concern that as "neighbors to that province, we have to be constantly vigilant so that terrorists do not penetrate our province."
The SADC military support mission in Mozambique is scheduled to end in January. Researcher Borges Nhamirre said he believed the SADC forces would be renewed. But, if they withdraw, he told VOA Portuguese, "it will be a total failure for the entire region. I think that what the region should do is mobilize more funds to maintain its mission in Mozambique."
In Ratner's view, "the most pressing issue" in Cabo Delgado is a food shortage, leaving civilians increasingly vulnerable and desperate. The World Food Program says a combination of manmade conflict, climate change and COVID has heightened hunger risks, while funding shortfalls limit what the agency can provide to needy people everywhere, including those who have been displaced in northern Mozambique.
"There's pressure for displaced people to return to the conflict zone to find food," Ratner noted, which "both puts them at greater danger and also gives insurgents access to more resources that civilians bring with them."
Reporting for the VOA Portuguese Service were Ramos Miguel from Maputo and André Baptista from Manica. Ana C. Guedes and Carol Guensburg contributed from Washington.