Macomia, Mozambique – A series of deadly attacks across northern Mozambique has shaken the region in the aftermath of a cyclone disaster.
According to the local anti-corruption NGO, Centre for Public Integrity (CIP), at least 13 people have been killed in attacks this month in remote villages across Cabo Delgado province, which was badly damaged by flooding after Cyclone Kenneth hit the coastal nation in late April.
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Over the past two years, an armed group has launched sporadic attacks on villages in the province, killing more than 200 people, according to the AFP news agency.
Amid widespread public suspicion that a local Muslim group is behind the attacks, President Filipe Nyusi rejected the theory at a rally on Friday.
“There is someone commanding them. They have an objective. Let them tell us what this objective is, that they can say ‘I am a Muslim,'” he told crowds in Funhalouro, a rural district in south-eastern Mozambique, Mozambican news agency AIM reported.
“They camouflage themselves as Muslims, but we think this is a mask they are putting on,” the president added.
Remote villages targeted
CIP, whose observers have been stationed at voter registration stations in the area before the general election in October, said that armed groups attacked several villages in Cabo Delgado between May 3 and 5, killing 13 people.
In Nacate, a village around 200km northwest of Pemba, which was badly affected by Cyclone Kenneth, an armed group raided a local food storage facility and killed one person, while the group also attacked homes in the village, killing six people.
In Minhanha, a village in the neighbouring district of Meluco, unknown gunmen reportedly killed three people and burned over 100 houses temporarily disrupting the election registration process.
CIP said that four people were killed in the villages of Ntapuala and Banga.
Zenaida Machado, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera the violence was due to a security weakness in some areas.
“The violence continues because the insurgents have found a terrain where they can strike without meeting a strong resistance,” she said in an email.
Living in fear
In Macomia, a small rural district over 200km northwest of Pemba city, residents were anxious about their security despite a strong police presence. The area was also battered by Cyclone Kenneth, which made landfall in Mozambique on April 25, bringing devastating winds and floodwaters that destroyed homes.
Luis Jean Batista, 35, said that he had few options but to stay and rebuild his home.
“I’m scared of what is happening, but this is the only place we have,” Batista, an unemployed father of seven, told Al Jazeera.
“It will be hard for us to get over this cyclone, I hope that we will get the help needed, my family really needs food and a proper house,” he added.
Batista’s home was destroyed by the winds and floods unleashed by the cyclone, but he has since built a temporary structure using mud and thatch grass. He hopes his family will receive support to help him build a permanent house.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but many locals, including Batista and his neighbour, Chuma Mogue, a bus ticket seller whose house was also destroyed by the storm, blame a Muslim armed group, known locally as “al-Shabab”. It has no known connection to the Somali-based armed group of the same name.
“They are the ones who are doing this,” Mongue said. “Nobody knows who is leading the al-Shabab … they can cause a lot of damage but we already have these problems of the cyclone to deal with.”
The police declined to comment on who might be responsible for the attacks.
The province of Cabo Delgado has a Muslim-majority population which has been largely excluded from the benefits of economic growth, despite recent oil and gas discoveries in the region, which may have contributed to creating an environment in which anti-state sentiment can thrive.
When the group first emerged in Cabo Delgado in October 2017, it was known by the name Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, meaning “followers of the prophetic tradition” in Arabic.
Since the start of this year, at least a dozen raids have taken place on villages in the districts of Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia and Palma, according to local media reports.
Concern over humanitarian operations
Following the attacks in early May, Jose Patricio, the deputy minister of national defence told the local newspaper O Pais that armed forces were on the ground to ensure the safety of the population.
Despite Patricio’s assurances, the tensions in Cabo Delgado have raised concerns about ongoing humanitarian operations providing assistance to the more than 250,000 people affected by the heavy storm.
Humanitarian agencies which met the government recently to discuss security issues in Pemba have said the violence will not hamper their operations.
Saviano Abreu, head of communications for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told Al Jazeera that although UNOCHA was aware of the uneasy situation, getting relief to communities in need remained the priority.
“Humanitarian actors engaged in the Tropical Cyclone Kenneth response are familiar with local conditions. At times like these, when communities are dealing with the impacts of a devastating natural disaster and need assistance, we must help where we can – and we are doing so,” he told Al Jazeera.
Gerald Bourke, communications officer for Southern Africa for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Al Jazeera that despite public concern over the safety of food relief efforts, the UN food agency would continue its operations.
“For WFP, it’s full steam ahead, we continue to scale up our operations in affected areas and we continue to provide food to over 10,000 people,” he said.
Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique six weeks after another deadly storm, Cyclone Idai, which killed at least 600 people in the country’s central region.
As humanitarian agencies still struggle to reach thousands in need and some villages remain inaccessible by road, Cabo Delgado’s security challenges risk not only complicating emergency assistance operations but also the lives of those who survived the cyclone but lost their homes.
“Victims of the cyclone are now facing fear and insecurity, on top of hunger and diseases caused by the cyclones,” said HRW’s Machado.
“This situation is more worrying now as the government begins to close IDP camps and asks people to return to their homes and villages.”
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