Children as young as 11 are being beheaded in Mozambique's northern province of Cabo Delgado, Britain-based charity Save the Children said Tuesday as the humanitarian crisis rapidly grows, with nearly 670,000 people displaced by the extremist insurgency.
Save the Children said it had spoken to displaced families who described "horrifying scenes" of murder, including mothers whose young sons were killed.
In one case, the woman hid, helpless, with her three other children as her 12-year-old was murdered nearby.
"That night our village was attacked and houses were burned," the 28-year-old, who Save the Children called Elsa, is quoted as saying. "When it all started, I was at home with my four children. We tried to escape to the woods, but they took my eldest son and beheaded him. We couldn't do anything because we would be killed too."
Another mother, a 29-year-old Save the Children calls Amelia, said her son was just 11 when he was killed by armed men. Reuters could not immediately reach Mozambique police or government spokespeople for comment.
Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering insurgency, linked to the Daesh terrorist group, that has escalated dramatically in the past year.
While beheadings have always been a hallmark of the attacks, throughout 2020 the insurgents began regularly engaging the military to capture and hold key towns. Brutality also continued, with mass killings including the murder of around 52 people at once in the village of Xitaxi in April.
Altogether almost 2,700 people on all sides have died in the violence, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a consultancy that tracks political violence. Almost 670,000 people have been displaced, Save the Children said, according to a release carried by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The United States last week declared the Mozambique group a foreign terrorist organization over its links to Daesh, saying the group reportedly pledged allegiance to it as early as 2018. Daesh claimed its first attack in Cabo Delgado in June 2019.
The U.S. Embassy in Mozambique on Monday said U.S. special forces will train Mozambican marines for two months, with the country also providing medical and communications equipment to help Mozambique combat the insurgency.
Amnesty International found earlier in March that war crimes were being committed by all sides in the conflict, with government forces also responsible for abuses against civilians – a charge the government has denied. Chance Briggs, Save the Children's country director in Mozambique, said reports of attacks on children "sicken us to our core."
"Our staff have been brought to tears when hearing the stories of suffering told by mothers in displacement camps," he said. "This violence has to stop, and displaced families need to be supported as they find their bearings and recover from the trauma."
More than 50 people were beheaded on a soccer field in Cabo Delgado last November. Another incident took place in April last year when dozens more were beheaded or shot dead during an attack on a village.
According to human rights groups, security forces have also committed human rights abuses – including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings – during operations against extremists. Last week the Biden administration designated Mozambique's extremist rebels as a "foreign terrorist organization,” imposing wide-ranging sanctions on the group, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
Authorities in Mozambique asked for international assistance to suppress the insurgency. On Monday, representatives of the U.S. Embassy in the capital Maputo said that U.S. troops will spend two months training soldiers in Mozambique, as well as providing "medical equipment and communications." Following the reports of abuses in the conflict, the short U.S. statement emphasized that the trainers will promote human rights.
"The violence has to stop and displaced families need to be supported as they find their bearings and recover from trauma," Briggs said.
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