Islamist insurgents have resumed attacks in northern Mozambique after a cyclone last month, killing almost two dozen villagers and torching homes in a mounting political threat in the run-up to a general election.
A shadowy militant group that has targeted Cabo Delgado province since October 2017 briefly halted attacks after Cyclone Kenneth made landfall on April 25, leaving 45 dead and 250,000 affected.
Relief teams and UN agencies were still searching for survivors and distributing aid when the militants returned to action.
In less than a month, the insurgents have killed at least 22 people, wounded dozens more and burned hundreds of homes, according to a record kept by AFP.
The attacks have increased, despite fresh police and military deployments as authorities struggle to prevent the insurgency disrupting voter registration before presidential and legislative elections in October.
Militants have been attacking remote communities in the gas-rich, Muslim-majority northern region since October 2017.
But the group’s identity and motives remain unclear.
"The country is falling victim and we all need to understand the real reasons," Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said last week in a rare interview with the privately owned Canal de Mocambique newspaper.
“The defence and security forces are putting their whole resources into this, so we can learn (the insurgents’) motivation and who these people are.”
The government would not confirm details of attacks, but AFP tracked the violence via local sources.
On May 3, as communities were still reeling from the cyclone, gunmen stormed the village of Nacate, in Macomia district, killing six and setting fire to a dozen homes.
The following day, the nearby villages of Ntapuala and Banga-Vieja were attacked, with four people killed, including a teacher driving a motorcycle and three others who died in burned houses.
Hours later, the villages of Ida and Ipho, in the district of Meluco, were torched after local people fled to surrounding forests.
The pattern has been repeated throughout the month.
Attacks have often forced the temporary closure of voting registration stations, said the Centre for Public Integrity, a Maputo-based civil action group.
On May 10, insurgents targeted the road from the provincial capital, Pemba, to the coastal district of Palma, where a major gas extraction project is being built.
Armed with rifles, the insurgents ambushed vehicles and killed two people travelling in a public minibus – a new tactic in the wave of violence.
One day later, in the village of Mangoma, attackers beheaded two people walking along a dirt road. A third person was tortured and sent to tell locals to abandon their villages.
“In the days that followed, there was a climate of terror and the voter registration was paralysed because the population had fled,” a local source said.
In another incident, gunmen opened fire on a funeral procession, killing two people as mourners ran for their lives.
After one attack, a professor said: “They shouted at us to leave the village, saying ‘We do not want anyone to live here. Why are you still here? Don’t you see that we’re at war?’”
Sheik Saide Habibe, a Muslim leader based in Maputo who has written an academic study of the insurgency, said little about the gunmen had been confirmed.
“It’s a small group that originally used rudimentary weapons. In conversations we have had with local people, they believe there are foreign elements among the attackers,” Habibe told AFP, referring to camps across the border in Tanzania.
“Mozambican nationals are involved for some adventure or as a means of survival.”
Habibe warned that the authorities seemed unable to quell the violence, which has claimed more than 200 lives since late 2017.
“The longer it takes, the harder it will be. Last week they beat up a Muslim leader who appeared publicly to condemn the attacks.”
The lucrative gas fields off Cabo Delgado add an extra dimension to the insurgency as international exploration companies have been caught up in the violence.
Convoys carrying contractors for the US petroleum company Anadarko have been attacked at least twice, with two people killed in the latest incident this month.
The company told AFP that it does not believe it had been deliberately targeted.
“Is it because we are rich, or because there is wealth in Mozambique?” asked President Nyusi in his interview, saying religion may be only one reason for the attacks.
For local people, the run up to October elections looks increasingly dangerous.
“We flee to the city [of Mocimboa da Praia] but the government says we should go back to our communities,” Barnabe Samuel Mussa, 66, a community leader in the village of Mitumbate, told AFP.
“Our village has already been attacked twice. We have soldiers here in armoured cars, but we live in fear.”