As many as 50 people have died in recent days in attacks by fighters linked to ISIL.
More than 1,000 Mozambique troops have recaptured the northern village of Muidumbe from armed fighters, police general commander Bernardino Rafael said, killing 16 and destroying some of their logistics.
Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, home to gas developments worth some $60bn, is grappling with an armed campaign linked to ISIL (ISIS) that has gathered pace this year, with fighters regularly taking on the army and seizing entire towns.
Speaking to troops in a field in Muidumbe, an area where local media reported a spate of beheadings by the fighters last week, Rafael on Thursday congratulated the men for their victory but warned they had not won yet.
“We marched and arrived in Muidumbe district headquarters, we expelled those who had occupied it,” he said in footage broadcast by state broadcaster TVM following the operation.
“Congratulations to our brave men … what we achieved up to now is not a victory, we achieved one step of our work,” he said, adding that fighters should stop the violence and speak with the government, which is open to dialogue.
The armed group, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, staged their first attack in 2017. Known at first mainly for crude beheadings, they declared allegiance to ISIL in June 2019 and since then have massively stepped up their attacks in both scale and frequency.
In August, they captured the key town of Mocimboa da Praia, only about 60km (37 miles) from the gas developments. The government has yet to announce its recapture.
The unrest has killed more than 2,000 people since 2017 – more than half of them civilians, according to the United States-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Last month, a report by rights group Amnesty International said the violent attacks in Cabo Delgado have triggered a humanitarian crisis, with more than 300,000 internally displaced people and 712,000 in need of humanitarian assistance.
Security analysts, who can be sceptical of government claims of victory, said an offensive had taken place in Muidumbe.
Jasmine Opperman, analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Data Project, said some nearby villages at least had been recaptured, though many locals were still hiding.
She added this had more symbolic importance for the government than strategic: “The government could not allow a second Mocimboa da Praia.”