The Irish Times view on attacks in Mozambique: terrorism’s long reach
Fighting is estimated to have taken 1,600 lives in this overlooked conflict
A picture from the World Food Programme (WFP) taken on March 18th shows a temporary settlement centre in Palma, Cabo Delgado Province, Northern Mozambique. Violence has resulted in widespread displacement, loss of lives and casualties, massive destruction of infrastructure and disruption of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people in central and northern districts of Cabo Delgado. Photograph: Grant Lee Neuenburg/WFP/AFP via Getty Images
On March 24th 100 Islamist gunmen converged on the refugee-filled town of Palma in northern Mozambique. It was the latest bloody chapter in a three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado province, a historically neglected Muslim area in a Christian-majority country. Last year fighting is estimated to have taken 1,600 lives in the overlooked conflict.
The insurgents of al-Shabaab, Arabic for “the young men” or “the lads”, a local group capitalising on regional marginalisation, are believed to have informal links with Islamic State. They laid waste to Palma, killing dozens indiscriminately, many by decapitation, and forcing thousands to flee into the bush and down the coast by sea.
Mozambican forces retook the town by the weekend but French energy group Total has evacuated hundreds of workers and suspended operations at its $20 billion natural gas development on the nearby Afungi peninsula. It is Africa’s biggest private investment and its closure will hit the economy hard. The army and police were defending Afungi at the time and later joined the battle to regain largely defenceless Palma.
The government has struggled to contain al-Shabaab, relying first, unsuccessfully, on mercenaries from Russia and then South Africa to supplement its army, now being trained by US advisers in counter-insurgency. Former colonial power Portugal has also promised assistance. But Amnesty has accused Mozambique forces and one of the mercenary groups of violent reprisals, including summary executions, when they have restored control after previous raids.
The conflict in Mozambique and the role of Islamist-linked groups has echoes of the violent instability in Yemen and Somalia on the Indian Ocean’s west coast. In northern Mali on Friday four UN peacekeepers were also killed by Islamists and suspected Islamist militants killed at least 23 civilians in a raid last week on a village in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In west Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger are all struggling to combat a fast growing Islamist insurgency.