Child Soldiers Used in Mozambique Attack, Human Rights Watch Reports

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HARARE, Zimbabwe — An Islamist group in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province used boys as young as 13 in recent attacks on the town of Macomia, advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported on Wednesday.

Residents, according to Associated Press, forced to flee recognized some of these child soldiers as their missing relatives.

The group, Al-Shabab, affiliated with the Islamic State, has previously been accused by UN agencies of kidnapping children and using them as soldiers since its insurgency began in 2017. A surge of attacks in March left at least 70 children missing, according to local authorities and aid agencies.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that dozens of child soldiers were seen carrying AK-style assault rifles and ammunition belts during the attacks.

Abu Rachide, a town resident, identified his 13-year-old nephew among the child soldiers.

“I saw him with my own eyes,” Rachide said. The boy, who went missing earlier this year, appeared to be taking orders from older fighters.

The attacks on Macomia began on Friday and continued into the next day. Islamist fighters looted shops and warehouses for food and engaged in firefights with Mozambican and South African soldiers before retreating, according to reports from Human Rights Watch and Mozambican media.

The fighting left at least 10 people dead, mostly soldiers, and forced around 700 residents to flee into nearby forests.

Recruiting children under 15 as soldiers is a war crime under international law. In February, the International Criminal Court awarded reparations of over €52 million ($56 million) to victims of a Ugandan rebel commander, including former child soldiers.

The attacks in Macomia occurred just days before the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a report alleging that millions of tons of timber have been illegally exported from Cabo Delgado to China since 2017, financing the insurgency.

The EIA found that Chinese traders purchase “conflict timber” from insurgents, violating Mozambique’s log export ban.

South Africa has deployed soldiers to Cabo Delgado as part of a regional force to combat the insurgency, which escalated dramatically in 2020 when Islamist fighters beheaded dozens of people, many of them children. After a period of relative inactivity, the insurgents have launched a new wave of attacks this year.

Regional troops have begun withdrawing ahead of a July deadline, though Rwandan soldiers are expected to remain under a separate bilateral agreement with Mozambique.

The conflict has forced over a million people from their homes since October 2017 and has resulted in thousands of deaths. It also threatens a $20 billion natural gas project in Cabo Delgado.