Reports of more than 50 beheadings by Mozambique’s Islamic extremist rebels have raised international alarm over the new level of violence in the country’s north.
The killings mark a bloody turn in the three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado province, prompting condemnations from the United Nations secretary-general and the president of neighboring Zimbabwe.
In the past two weeks, the extremists have seized nine towns in the Muidumbe district of Cabo Delgado, extending their range from the port of Mocimboa da Praia, which they have held since August, according to reports in local media.
Capturing the town of Muatide, the insurgents established a center on a soccer pitch where they beheaded more than 50 people, according to Pinnacle News, which has correspondents throughout the province.
The rebels abducted 15 boys undergoing traditional initiation rites and their five counselors. All 20 were beheaded along with another nine people, Pinnacle reported on Nov. 2. The extremists went on to cut off the heads of 31 more people, Pinnacle reported on Nov. 7.
Mozambique’s government has not confirmed the killings, but Luiz Fernando Lisboa, the Roman Catholic bishop of Pemba, the provincial capital, said this week he had confirmed with a number of sources the report of the killings of the boys at the initiation ceremony.
He said it was impossible to say how many had been beheaded in total, according to an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was shocked by the “reported beheading and kidnapping of women and children,” his spokesman said this week. He urged the country’s authorities “to conduct an investigation into these incidents, and to hold those responsible to account.”
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the violence in a tweet Wednesday. “More than 50 people have been beheaded, women kidnapped, villages looted and then set on fire. Barbarians hijack a religion of peace to sow terror: Islamist terrorism is an international threat that calls for an international response.”
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted that he is “deeply shocked” by the reports of the beheadings. “These acts of barbarity must be stamped out wherever they are found,” he said, adding that Zimbabwe “is ready to assist in any way.”
The extremists’ three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
More than 355,000 have been forced to leave their homes, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said at the end of October.
Pemba and the surrounding areas are inundated with families fleeing the violence. International aid agencies including the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are working to provide emergency food and services to the displaced.