Mozambican police said on Tuesday, January 29 they had arrested three Ugandans on suspicion of leading attacks in the country’s gas-rich Cabo Delgado province which has been rocked by a series of violent incidents.
The suspects, two men and a woman, were picked up in a forested area on Friday, with police saying their arrest had enabled them to shut down several “training camps”.
“These are the leaders of the group of criminals who have carried out attacks in Cabo Delgado,” said Zacarias Nacute, police spokesman for neighbouring Nampula province.
The arrests come as Mozambique struggles to deal with a wave of attacks apparently carried out by Islamist militants that began in the north in late 2017, killing more than 100 civilians and scores of police, and threatening government plans to exploit newly-discovered gas and oil reserves.
Cabo Delgado province is expected to become the center of a natural gas industry after promising offshore discoveries near Palma. The vast gas deposits could transform the impoverished country’s economy, with experts predicting that Mozambique could even become the world’s third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
But the country’s north has largely been excluded from the economic growth of the last 20 years, creating fertile ground for radical Islamist ideology.
Many incidents have been blamed on an Islamist group called Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, known locally as “al-Shabaab.”
Researchers have said the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama leadership has links to Islamist groups based in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and in the Great Lakes region, where some also received training, Reuters reported.
President Filipe Nyusi vowed to “neutralise” the threat and sent heavy reinforcements to the region where hundreds of people have been arrested.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused security forces of serious human rights violations and several journalists have been arrested in the area.
Police said the three suspects confessed to belonging an Al-Shabaab cell in Uganda but had insisted they were only in Mozambique to find their leader, who had been arrested there at an earlier date.
Speaking to reporters while under police guard, one of the suspects called Abdulrahim Faiza said he was involved with Al-Shabaab in Uganda but had not been involved in any attacks in Mozambique.
“I am not part of the groups that have carried out attacks in Cabo Delgado. We are in Mozambique to rescue our captured leader,” he said, naming them as Abdul Aziz.
South African suspect dies after becoming ill in custody
In August, police identified six men – Abdul Faizal, Abdul Remane, Abdul Raim, Nuno Remane, Ibn Omar and a sixth known only as Salimo – who they said were leading attacks.
Legal proceedings against around 200 suspected militants began in October at a jail in the provincial capital Pemba.
In December, Mozambican prosecutors named South African Andre Mayer Hanekom and Tanzanians Chafim Mussa and Adamu Nhaungwa Yangue among leaders of the group. The three faced charges of murder, crimes against the state, inciting civil disobedience among a raft of other offences.
Police allege some of the suspects “confessed that the group intends with their armed actions to create instability and prevent the exploitation of natural gas in Palma, and later create an independent state.”
Reportedly known as “baba mzungo” or “white father,” prosecutors allege Hanekom was responsible for the group’s logistics, including payment of monthly salaries equivalent to $160, and provision of medicines.
But 61-year-old Hanekom died last week under mysterious circumstances. He was transferred from prison to hospital on January 19 after having convulsions and bleeding under the skin, according to his wife Francis, who had previously rubbished the charges against him as “nonsense.”
Francis Hanekom, who is a registered nurse, said on Facebook that the Mozambican authorities “want to change the cause of death on the death certificate (from) encephalopathy and hypoxia (to) meningo-encephalitis of viral or bacterial origin.”
If an infectious disease is the official cause of death, the remains must be cremated before transfer out of the country, but Hanekom is demanding an independent autopsy in South Africa.
“The first doctor who admitted Andre said that it looks like poisoning. And I had a threat against Andre’s life. So I have valid reason to suspect that there is something going on, and if there is, they will want to hide it,” she told AFP.
With reporting from AFP