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Rwandan soldiers gather at the airport in Mocimboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique on Aug. 9, 2021.Marc Hoogsteyns/The Associated Press

In the end, the Islamist insurgents gave up their prized Mozambican stronghold without a shot fired. They melted away into the countryside, avoiding a direct clash with hundreds of Rwandan soldiers and saving their bullets for future attacks.

The capture of Mocimboa de Praia, a strategic port town that the Islamists had seized last year, is a key victory for a coalition of African forces in their newly launched counterinsurgency campaign in northern Mozambique. But it is far from the end of the guerrilla fighting or the humanitarian disaster that has engulfed the region.

Mozambique’s military, bolstered by about 1,000 Rwandan troops, gained control of the town on Sunday after several days of skirmishes on its outskirts. “There was no fighting in the city because the enemy fled before we got here,” Rwandan Brigadier-General Pascal Muhizi said.

“Once we got so close, about five kilometres, they took off,” he told the pro-government Rwandan newspaper The New Times. “However, the war is not really over, since the terrorists reorganized and ran away and are now still hiding.”

The town’s capture will be welcomed by multinational energy companies, including French energy giant Total, which have invested heavily in the region. Advances by the insurgents over the past year had forced the companies to withdraw their staff and suspend plans for US$60-billion in natural-gas developments around the Afungi peninsula, about 80 kilometres north of Mocimboa da Praia.

In March, the insurgents had also captured the town of Palma, near the Afungi peninsula. While the Mozambican military later regained the town, the insurgents have remained active around Palma. If they are now pushed back from both towns, the foreign investors might feel the region is secure enough for them to revive their plans.

The Rwandan and Mozambican military offensive will soon be bolstered by a Southern African emergency force, which is currently mobilizing in the city of Pemba. This force will include about 1,500 troops from South Africa, about 300 from Botswana and other troops and equipment from Angola, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Tanzania. About 700 troops are reportedly on the ground already.

But security analysts warned that the capture of towns and territory is far from enough to end the insurgency. The Islamists operated for years without any urban areas under their control, and are likely to do so again. They have usually specialized in hit-and-run attacks, raiding and looting villages, burning houses and killing civilians.

Mozambique’s President, Filipe Nyusi, acknowledged on Monday that the challenge of maintaining and consolidating the territorial gains will be more difficult than the capture of the towns. He made the remarks at a ceremony to mark the arrival of the Southern African military force.

Jasmine Opperman, a security analyst who specializes in Mozambique, said the insurgents are deliberately avoiding any direct clashes with heavily armed military forces. More complex issues, including the humanitarian crisis and the sense of economic marginalization in the region, will be equally important, she said.

“Neglect these and the insurgency will be awaiting an opportune time to resurface,” Ms. Opperman wrote on Twitter this week. “The battle for shifting momentum has only begun, and it will not be a three-month intervention.”

The insurgents are known locally as al-Shabab, although they have no known connections to the older Islamist group of the same name in Somalia. They are suspected of links to Islamic State – the radical Islamist organization in the Middle East – and the United States has designated them a terrorist group. But their growth since their emergence in 2017 has largely been built on social and economic grievances among Muslim youth in northern Mozambique, including a sense of exclusion from foreign investment and economic activity in the region – issues that will be difficult to eliminate with military action.

Mozambique’s government has been slow to accept the offers of foreign military aid, preferring to hire private military contractors from Russia and South Africa in earlier failed bids to defeat the insurgents. Even now, the relationship between the Rwandan force and the Southern African force is unclear, with some analysts speculating that France and the United States have been unofficially supporting the Rwandan intervention.

Rwanda has been celebrating its military achievements against the Islamists, proclaiming its territorial triumphs on social media before the Mozambican authorities can even announce them. Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza, a writer for The New Times who is accompanying the Rwandan military, boasted that the Rwandan soldiers were as swift and efficient as the boxer Mike Tyson in his prime. “By the time you buy your ticket… the fight is done!” he wrote on Twitter.

“A problem that lasted for five years … was resolved in exactly a month! Rwandan army brought cutting-edge warfare to an enemy accustomed to rudimentary skirmishes.”

But the humanitarian issues in Mozambique will not be tackled so easily. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled from Palma and other towns. More than 3,000 people have been killed in the insurgency. About 800,000 have been forced to flee from their homes, and nearly a million people need emergency food aid.

The humanitarian group Save the Children reported this week that the number of unaccompanied or separated children who had fled from the conflict increased by 40 per cent last month. The increase, from 395 children at the end of June to 550 at the end of last month, “highlights the devastating impact of the ongoing conflict in Mozambique on children,” the group said.

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