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An Islamist group operating in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province used boys as young as 13 in attacks on a town last week. Residents who were forced to flee the fighting recognized some of the child soldiers as their missing relatives. Al-Shabab, affiliated with Islamic State, has been accused of kidnapping children and using them as soldiers in its insurgency, which began in 2017. A surge of attacks in March left at least 70 children missing, according to local authorities and aid agencies.

Witnesses reported to Human Rights Watch that dozens of child soldiers were used in the recent attacks, seen carrying AK-style assault rifles and ammunition belts. Two witnesses identified their 13-year-old nephew among the children. The attacks on the town of Macomia began Friday and continued into the next day, with Islamist fighters looting shops and warehouses for food. At least 10 people, mostly soldiers, were reportedly killed in the latest fighting, and about 700 residents fled to nearby forests to escape the attacks.

Recruiting children under the age of 15 as soldiers is a war crime under international law. The attacks in Mozambique came days before an investigation revealed that illegal exports of timber from Cabo Delgado to China since 2017 had been used to finance the insurgency. South Africa has deployed soldiers to Cabo Delgado as part of a regional force to combat the insurgency, which began in 2017 and has forced over a million people to flee their homes, with thousands killed.

After a period of relative inactivity, the insurgents launched a new wave of attacks this year, leading to the regional troops beginning to withdraw from their positions ahead of a July deadline. However, soldiers from Rwanda are expected to remain as part of a separate bilateral deal with Mozambique. The conflict threatens a $20 billion natural gas project in Cabo Delgado. Islamist fighters beheaded dozens of people, including children, in 2020 as the violence escalated, leading to the deployment of additional troops to the region.

In February, the International Criminal Court granted reparations of over $56 million to victims of a convicted commander of a Ugandan rebel group, which included former child soldiers. The Environmental Investigation Agency has reported that Chinese traders purchase “conflict timber” from insurgents in Cabo Delgado and export it illegally alongside other wood. The humanitarian crisis in the region has forced over a million people to flee their homes since 2017, with thousands killed and a major natural gas project under threat due to the insurgency.

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