Jihadists in northern Mozambique occupied two small islands in the Indian Ocean threatening maritime traffic in the region where a multi-billion-dollar offshore gas exploration project is being developed, locals said Friday.
The move is the latest in the Cabo Delgado province in the past three years.
It came a month after the Islamic State-linked insurgents occupied a strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia, which was used for cargo deliveries for the development of the gas project.
Witnesses told AFP that the militants seized control of the islands of Mecungo and Vamisse on Wednesday night.
“They arrived at night in small fishing boats. They removed people from the houses and then torched them,” said one man who had fled to Mecungo island from Mocimboa da Praia.
“They didn’t hurt anyone, they just gave orders to leave the islands,” he said by phone, adding that he had moved further inland to the ruby mining town of Montepuez after sailing to the mainland and then taking a bus ride to Montepuez.
The islands were mostly inhabited by internally displaced people who fled their villages on the mainland where attacks have escalated.
Another witness said that before the houses were burned down, the insurgents held meetings with people and instructed everyone to leave the island.
“They got us together and told us to run away if we want to live. I think everyone left the island,” one said asking to not be identified.
The jihadists have staged attacks since 2017, displacing more than 250,000 people and killing at least 1,500.
Government forces are still battling to retake the Mocimboa da Praia port since it was occupied on August 12.
The militants’ attacks in the Cabo Delgado have rendered the road network between the provincial capital Pemba and the gas region in Palma, impassable.
Maritime transport had been the alternative for goods and people.
But French oil giant Total, which is investing $23 billion in the gas exploration project, said it no longer relies on the occupied Mocimboa da Praia port.
“Mozambique LNG is not using Mocimboa da Praia as a logistical hub and has indeed built its own marine facilities,” Total said in an emailed response to questions.
Provincial police declined to comment on the islands’ occupation.