Mozambique has admitted for the first time the presence of ISIL-affiliated fighters in the country amid escalating attacks in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado northern province, according to a statement.
The public acknowledgement came on Friday, just days after police reported a “massacre” of 52 villagers who had refused to be recruited into the ranks of the shadowy group that has terrorised the region’s villages and towns for more than two years.
The National Council for Defence and Security, the state body that advises President Filipe Nyusi on security matters, blamed the attacks on the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
The council “analysed the situation of the attacks in the province of Cabo Delgado and concluded that … they were committed by the Islamic State, a terrorist organisation”, said the statement seen by AFP news agency.
It “reveals that we are dealing with external aggression,” it added.
Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), affiliated with ISIL, has claimed some of the attacks in the region since last June posting images of killed soldiers and seized weapons.
In recent weeks, the fighters have unmasked themselves, openly declaring their campaign to establish an “Islamist caliphate” in the gas-rich region.
They have been scaling up their attacks, seizing government buildings, blocking roads and temporarily hoisting their black-and-white flag over towns and villages across the province.
But police have refused to comment on the attacks and on rare occasions would do so, attributing the attacks to “criminals or illegal miners”.
Police spokesman Orlando Mudumane this week revealed that the fighters had beheaded and shot the 52 murdered villagers on April 7 after they refused to be recruited.
The attacks in Cabo Delgado started in 2017 in the small town of Mocimboa da Praia and have now spread to seven districts, or about a third of the province’s territory, according to Police Chief Bernardino Rafael.
More than 900 people have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
The unrest has forced more than 200,000 locals to flee and raised concern among energy giants operating in the gas-rich region.
Locally, the group members are known as al-Shabab, although they have no known links to the armed group of that name operating in Somalia.