People are fleeing a surge of attacks in northern Mozambique where witnesses told of beheadings, mass kidnappings and villages burned to the ground, the United Nations said.
Officials said armed groups stepped up assaults in Cabo Delgado, the centre of an Islamist insurgency that killed hundreds since 2017.
The northern region is home to one of the world’s biggest recent gas finds, where Exxon Mobil Corp, Total and others are working.
Displaced villagers described killings, maiming, torture and destroyed crops, Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.
“They speak of men being targeted and beheaded and many, many reports of women and children kidnapped or simply disappearing,” he told a briefing in Geneva.
Some attackers appear to be bandits. “There is the element of some groups driven by ideological or other ideas. And they have been quite vicious spreading terror in this part of Mozambique,” Mahecic added.
The UNHCR said there was a sharp increase in violence in recent months and the past weeks had been the most turbulent since attacks began in October 2017. In all, 100 000 people were uprooted by violence in the last two years.
“In total, at least 28 attacks were carried out in the province since the beginning of the year,” Mahecic said.
The militants – who tout their brand of Islam as an antidote to what they say is a corrupt ruling elite – call themselves Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama when they started attacks in 2017.
More recently, Islamic State claimed responsibility via its media outlets, though there has been no independent confirmation of a link.