YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Violence has escalated in recent days in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, with the Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of the Southern Africa Bishops’ Conference telling Crux that attacks have become “more severe.”

“The situation is deteriorating rapidly. Attacks are now in the south and north of Cabo Delgado. For the first time, the insurgents have crossed the Lurio River and are attacking in Nampula province,” Johan Viljoen said.

“The attacks are not different, just more severe,” he said and added that there are possibilities “the Mozambique army suffered many casualties.”

Fighting broke out in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique in 2017 when a group calling itself al-Shabab — not linked to the Somali group of the same name – attacked towns in the region.

After the rebels seized the town of Palma in early 2021, troops from neighboring countries arrived in the country to help the Mozambican military.

What initially began as a series of attacks by radical Islamist groups has now escalated into a full-scale civil war, resulting in the loss of over 2,600 lives. Despite its significance, the conflict in this natural gas-rich region has largely escaped global political attention.

On Friday, insurgents launched a major attack on the northern town of Macomia which is found in Cabo Delgado.

“Macomia has been under attack since this morning. Fire exchange still continues,” President Filipe Nyusi said in a televised address on Friday. He explained that the insurgents initially withdrew after 45 minutes of fighting. They then regrouped and came back.

“The humanitarian crisis is serious,” Viljoen told Crux.

“So far more than 50,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced Peoples] have fled to Nampula province. These are the ones registered at the reception center. There are many, many more living with local families,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said al-Shabab used boys as young as 13 to raid and loot Macomia in the May 10 attack. The charity said it is unclear if the children also engaged in fighting against government armed forces and noted the recruitment and use of children under age 15 as child soldiers is a war crime.

“The armed group Al-Shabab’s use of children as soldiers is cruel, unlawful, and only adds to the horrors of Cabo Delgado’s conflict,” said Zenaida Machado, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, adding Al-Shabab “should immediately release all children in their ranks and stop any further recruitment.”

He added Al-Shabab’s ability to recruit, train and use child soldiers across Cabo Delgado “is very concerning.”

“The Mozambican authorities, armed groups, and international partners should step up their efforts to ensure that children stay safe in school and at home and keep children off the battlefield,” Machado said.

The International Crisis Groups says the military campaign has failed to deal it a decisive blow, and the recent uptick in attacks throughout the province’s coastal areas suggests that fighters are remobilizing.

In January, Southern African Development Community (SADC) said it would withdraw the force when its current mandate expires in July. Botswana and Lesotho pulled their forces out in April, while Angola and Namibia are currently leaving the country.

South Africa announced in April it will keep its troops in Cabo Delgado until the end of the year, under SADC auspices but not part of the current mission. It will also leave behind 200 other personnel until March 2025 to tackle “illegal maritime activities” along the Mozambican coast.

Amid the escalating violence, Christians in the Mozambique city of Beira used the feast of Our Lady of Fatima to pray for a return to peace in Cabo Delgado.

They called for the intercession of Our Lady to bring an end to the conflict and terrorist attacks in Cabo Delgado.

Father Diamantino Andrade, the Diocesan Pastoral Coordinator and Parish Priest of Our Lady of Fatima, emphasized the significance of May—a month dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Bishop António Juliasse Ferreira Sandramo of Pemba in the northern Cabo Delgado province told Crux in March that much of the jihadist violence targets Christians.