Islamic State claims first presence in Mozambique, denied by police

Villages in remote northern Mozambique have been repeatedly attacked by a shadowy Islamist group -- more than 200 people have died since 2017 (AFP Photo/Joaquim Nhamirre)

Maputo (AFP) - The Islamic State group has claimed it was involved in an insurgent clash in Mozambique for the first time, but analysts expressed doubt and police dismissed the claim outright.

A jihadist insurgency has been growing in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, with more than 200 people killed and many villages torched.

According to SITE Intelligence, a company that monitors extremist activity, Islamic State issued a statement late Tuesday claiming involvement in an apparent gunfight with the Mozambique military in Cabo Delgado.

"The soldiers of the Caliphate were able to repulse an attack by the Crusader Mozambican army in Metubi village, in the Mocimboa area," said the statement, according to a SITE translation.

"They clashed with them with a variety of weapons, killing and wounding a number of them.

"The mujahideen captured weapons, ammunition, and rockets as spoils."

Insurgents regularly attack villages, kill local people -- sometimes beheading them -- and burn down houses despite a heavy police and military presence in the province that borders Tanzania.

"There are Islamist groups in Mozambique that feel represented by IS," Fernando Jorge Cardoso, an African specialist at the University Institute of Lisbon in Portugal, told AFP.

"But this does not mean that there was a movement of armed men to this place.

"It's good for IS -- because they can say that they are spreading, and it's good for the local group -- because they feel that they are part of a greater movement. It's propaganda, but it has some meaning."

Another expert on the Mozambique insurgency, who declined to be named, said Islamic State were unlikely to have any direct contact with local fighters.

"Islamic State is not in Mozambique... but they might have links," he said. "Islamic State are struggling to survive but want to give the idea that they are active in Africa."

- Scores killed last month -

Police on Wednesday dismissed the Islamic State claims, which came as Muslims worldwide marked the holiday of Eid al-Fitr after the holy month of Ramadan.

"The security forces distance themselves from these reports," police spokesman Orlando Mudumane told reporters in Maputo.

"The information is not true. The police reiterate the readiness of the security forces to combat whatever wrongdoers do."

The police and government have a policy not to comment on any insurgent activity, even if attacks are confirmed by local people.

Militant Islamists have targeted remote communities in gas-rich, Muslim-majority Cabo Delgado since October 2017, but the group's identity and motives remain unclear.

Using local sources, AFP tracked the unrest through May, recording 14 attacks and more than 40 deaths.

Attacks have forced temporary closures of voting registration stations ahead of October elections.

Lucrative gas fields off Cabo Delgado add an extra dimension to the insurgency as international exploration companies have been caught up in the violence.

According to local sources, 16 people were killed in a highway ambush on May 31, in the highest single death toll of the insurgency.

Attackers threw home-made explosives into a truck -- a new tactic -- and then opened fire.