Suspected militants beheaded over a dozen men and teenagers participating in a male initiation ceremony in northern Mozambique, local sources said Wednesday, in the latest violent incident in the country’s insurgency-hit northeast.
The dismembered bodies of at least five adults and 15 boys were found on Monday, scattered across a forest clearing in Muidumbe district.
Islamist militants operating in the area had attacked several nearby villages over the weekend, looting and burning down homes before retreating into the surrounding thicket.
“Police learned of the massacre committed by the insurgents through reports of people who found corpses in the woods,” said an officer in the neighboring Mueda district who asked not to be named.
“It was possible to count 20 bodies spread over an area of about 500 meters,” he added.
“These were young people who were at an initiation rite ceremony accompanied by their advisers.”
An aid worker in Mueda, who also declined to be named, confirmed the massacre had taken place, saying some of the boys had come from that area.
She said body parts had been sent to their families for burial on Tuesday.
“Funerals were held in an environment of great pain,” said the worker, hired by the World Food Programme to assist citizens displaced by the unrest.
“The bodies were already decomposing and couldn’t be shown to those present.”
Mozambican authorities have not yet commented on the deaths, and provincial police did not respond to multiple telephone calls from AFP outside office hours.
Jihadists have caused havoc in Mozambique’s northeastern Cabo Delgado province over the past three years, ravaging villages and towns as part of a campaign to establish an Islamist caliphate.
The militants have stepped up their offensive in recent months and violently seized swathes of territory, terrorizing citizens in the process.
In April, jihadists shot dead and beheaded more than 50 youths for allegedly refusing to join their ranks.
The unrest has killed over 2,000 people since 2017, more than half of them civilians, according to the US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data group.
Over 400,000 others have been displaced by the conflict and sought refuge in nearby towns and cities.
Around 10,000 people fled to the provincial capital Pemba via boat over the past week alone, Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday, raising concerns over access to clean water and sanitation.
Little is known about Mozambique’s jihadists, who call themselves Al Shabaab — although they have no known links to the group of that name operating in Somalia.
Last year the militants pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group.