Militants locally known as "Al-Shabaab" seize a key town in northern Mozambique
An Islamist insurgent group seized a key town in northern Mozambique, which plays host to several foreign companies working on a $60 billion natural gas project, authorities said, in a dramatic incident that could define the future of the southern Africa nation.
The militants, locally known as Al-Shabaab, staged an overnight attack at Mocimboa de Praia, a town within troubled Cabo Delgado region on Sunday, before taking control, police said.
Moments later, the militants raised their trademark flag in the town. The army and police have launched a counter-offensive, police added.
Sunday's attack was the first waged by the jihadists in a major town, although they have raided villages before. Although the group proclaims to be Al-Shabaab, it's not clear if it has links to Somalia-based Al-Qaida associates, Al-Shabaab.
During the deadly encounter, the militants blocked all the exit routes, temporarily making it impossible to leave the town, witnesses told BBC.
"They are taking residents to the mosque and locking them there," the privately-owned Moz24h website quoted a resident as saying.
But Amnesty International was quick to blame the Mozambique government, terming the take over as "tragic failure by the administration" which is mandated to protect the lives of innocent people in the volatile region.
“For almost three years, armed groups have been attacking villagers around Cabo Delgado, causing untold human suffering without being held accountable,” added Muleya Mwananyanda, the group's deputy director for East and Southern Africa in a statement.
The escalating attacks, he noted, were compounded by the Mozambican government's unprecedented ban on journalists, researchers and foreign observers from accessing the area to assess the damage.
Mwananyanda urged authorities to immediately and effectively take action in order to “protect everyone in the region, including by ramping up lawful security measures and carrying out investigations into all the recent attacks with the aim of bringing suspected perpetrators to justice.”
For years now, close to 350 people have been killed with 1,500 displaced from the region, which has been completely isolated by President Filipe Nyusi's administration, an American NGO said in a report.
But the government has battled to curb the insurgency, despite support from a Russian military company, which recently established a military base in the country, the first-ever in Africa.
Until to date, there have been no intelligence reports linking the group with the one in Somalia. Currently, Somalia Al-Shabaab has close to 7,000 active fighters, most of them who are based in the war-torn nation, and at times cross-border to Kenya, AFRICOM said.
Cabo Delgado is one of Mozambique's poorest regions, but it is rich in untapped mineral resources. In 2010, Mozambique discovered huge gas reserves in Rovuma Basin, off the Indian Ocean coast of Cabo Delgado.
Last October, ExxonMobil unveiled plans to invest more than $500 million in the initial construction phase of its gas project in the region, a move that could significantly change the area's fortunes.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab is losing grip in key areas due to persistent raids by US military, AMISOM and SNA forces, with the latest victory being the liberation of Janaale, a key town in Lower Shebelle region, officials said.