Maputo (AFP) - Mozambican police on Tuesday dismissed the threat of Islamist militants controlling any territory in the north of country after a spate of jihadist attacks in the gas-rich region.
Mozambique's northern region has been hit by jihadist assaults on remote villages since October 2017, but in recent weeks militants have stepped up attacks as part of a campaign for an Islamist caliphate in the region.
Militants have temporarily seized government buildings, robbed banks, blocked roads and briefly hoisted a black and white jihadist flag over towns and villages across Cabo Delgado province.
"There are no areas that can be said to be in the hands of insurgents, what exists are areas prone to incursions by criminals," National Police commander Bernadino Rafael said at press briefing in neighbouring Nampula province.
"The situation prevails and we are working to restore order."
Despite the promises of President Filipe Nyusi, neither the police nor the army, recently supported by private security companies in the region, have succeeded in preventing attacks.
The conflict has already killed more than 700 people according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF). More than 200,000 people have been displaced by fighting, according to the Bishop of the Diocese of Pema, Dom Luiz Fernando Lisboa.
The police chief said the majority of the attackers were from the neighbouring Tanzania, accompanied by Mozambican youth.
Rafael said Mozambican youth were being "deceived into employment... that does not exist."
"They are tricked into entering the way of crime," Rafael said.
Thousands of people have fled rural areas to the port city of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, seeking refuge among friends and relatives.
Cabo Delgado has been hit by jihadist attacks since 2017, but the identity of the assailants remains unclear.
Locals call the group Al-Shabaab, but it is not linked to Islamist insurgency of the same name operating for years in Somalia.
Since June, the so-called Islamic State group has claimed around 20 attacks in Cabo Delgado, saying these targeted the Mozambican army.
But analysts see no evidence of IS financial or military support to the Mozambican jihadists.
The militants are operating in area where energy majors, including Exxon-Mobil and French oil company Total, are preparing to extract gas in the Rovuma basin off Cabo Delgado's coast by 2022.
With more than $30 billion in investment sunk into the project, Nyusi is under pressure to respond and increase military presence in the region.