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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The escalating extremist insurgency in northern Mozambique has displaced 310,000 people, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis, the World Food Program said Tuesday.

The rebels have recently stepped up attacks in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, seizing the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia, which they have held for six weeks. Clashes between the extremist fighters, aligned with the Islamic State group, and government forces have caused massive numbers of local residents to flee their homes and fields.

The conflict has killed more than 1,500 people since it began in 2017 and the increased violence this year has caused widespread upheaval across the area.

“We are deeply concerned about the unfolding humanitarian situation in Cabo Delgado where conflict and violence have left people without access to food and livelihoods,” Antonella D’Aprile, the World Food Program’s representative for Mozambique, said Tuesday.

“The growing insecurity and poor infrastructure have meant that reaching out to people in need has become harder and now with COVID-19 the crisis becomes even more complex,” she said.

The threat of hunger has grown in Mozambique’s north as entire communities have lost access to food and income, warns WFP. Crisis levels of food insecurity are expected to continue into next year, according to the region’s Famine Early Warning Network.

Cabo Delgado province already had Mozambique’s second-highest rate of chronic malnutrition with more than half of children under 5 chronically malnourished and any additional shocks could rapidly worsen the situation, especially for women and children, said WFP.

“The situation is extremely volatile and dangerous, but we managed to locate large numbers of the displaced and distribute food to about 200,000 people last month. We hope to reach close to 300,000 people this month,” Lola Castro, WFP’s director for southern Africa told The Associated Press. “Families have lost everything and need food urgently.”

Many communities have fled to small islands along Mozambique’s Indian Ocean coast and others have gone to remote inland areas. WFP is working with Mozambique’s government and other aid agencies to get food and supplies the displaced using boats and trucks and soon it hopes that airplanes and helicopters will be available, said Castro.

Such a large-scale emergency operation was not in the budget and WFP is appealing to its donors for funds to keep delivering food to the hungry.

“We need $4.7 million per month to feed the most vulnerable,” said Castro. “We need the funds to purchase food for distribution.”

Access and communication have been cut off to the area surrounding the rebel-held port of Mocimboa da Praia and surrounding towns, including Palma, she said. United Nations security teams have not had any contact with Mozambique’s rebels, she said.

Atrocities have been committed by both the rebels and government forces, according to human rights groups, but WFP’s workers and operations have not been targeted.

Amnesty International has released videos in the past month that appear to show government troops torturing and killing several people in northern Mozambique. One video showed troops shooting a woman in the back more than 30 times and another showed a uniformed man killing a civilian by cutting his throat. The government denied the videos are genuine, Amnesty insisted that its analysis of the videos shows that government troops carried out the violent abuses.

Although hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, there are not massive camps of displaced people. Instead, many of the displaced have been taken in by local residents in safer areas, said Castro.

“We are seeing poor families opening their homes and their meager resources to help the displaced,” said Castro. “It is quite remarkable how these people, who have so little themselves, can offer such hospitality. Everybody is sharing what little food they have. When we see such generosity, it is a responsibility for us to help them all.”


This story was first published on Sept. 22. It was updated on Sept. 24 to make clear that U.N. security teams have not had any contact with Mozambique’s rebels.