Fighters captured a heavily defended port in the far northern Mozambique town of Mocimboa da Praia, close to the site of natural gas projects worth some $60bn.
It was one of several attacks on the town – 60km (37 miles) south of the projects being developed by oil majors like France’s Total – this year as fighters with links to the ISIL (ISIS) armed group have stepped up attacks in the region. Its port is used for cargo deliveries to the developments.
“The port of Mocimboa da Praia was captured by the terrorists at dawn,” the Moz24Horas website reported, while a military source told AFP news agency the small town and its port had “fallen”.
Mozambique’s defence forces (FDS) confirmed “terrorists” launched “sequenced attacks” on several villages surrounding the port over the past week in an attempt to occupy the town.
“At the moment, there are ongoing actions to neutralise the terrorists that are using populations in the affected areas as shields,” the FDS said in a statement.
“In the last seven days, the joint command of the security and defence forces carried out relevant offensive action against an attempt of occupation of Vila de Mocimboa de Praia by terrorists.”
Alex Vines, director of the Africa programme at think-tank Chatham House and a Mozambique analyst, told dpa news agency on Thursday “the insurgents are gaining in confidence, [are] better armed and organised, while the government forces are increasingly overstretched and demoralised as Mocimboa demonstrates”.
“This was not an unexpected setback for the government – the Cabo Delgado conflict is now a pattern of offensives and counter-offensives,” he said, referring to the province where the fighters operate.
Tristan Gueret, of Risk Advisory Group, said: “The attack is yet another indication of the severe inadequacy of the military response in much of Cabo Delgado.”
Attacks in the northern region have already killed at least 1,300 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
Displaced people number more than 250,000, according to aid organisations working locally.
In its latest weekly report released on Wednesday, ACLED said “insurgents and government security forces have been in more or less constant running battles in the area” for the past week.
The attacks started in 2017 in Mocimboa da Praia and have since spread to massive swaths of Cabo Delgado province.
The latest attack – the third on the town this year – was claimed by the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).
The ISIL-affiliated group has the stated goal of establishing a caliphate in the region. ISCAP has claimed several attacks since June 2019 via social media, often posting images of slain soldiers and seized weapons.