Johannesburg (CNN)Insurgents beheaded scores of people in Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado in a series of attacks that began on October 31 and lasted several days, an eyewitness told CNN, confirming earlier state media reports.
Scores of civilians beheaded by insurgents in Northern Mozambique, witness says
A resident who escaped the assault in Muidumbe District told CNN he personally knew at least five of the people who were killed, saying insurgents cut off the victims' heads before leaving them to rot in ditches and on the sides of roads.
The local, who refused to give his name out of fear of reprisals, said his mother was among a group that tried to return to Muidumbe after their escape, but fled once more when they realized the insurgents were still occupying the town. "They found several corpses without life," he said, adding, "I can still see smoke. They are still burning houses."
A local priest in the district told CNN that entire families were killed, citing accounts from relatives and others who had fled the area. Everyone had left the village for fear of death, he added.
On Monday, Mozambican police announced to state media that more than 50 people had been rounded up and beheaded on a soccer pitch in town during the attacks, a claim that CNN could not verify. State media also reported the militants had abducted women and children.
A security source operating in Mozambique told CNN that the beheadings were likely a retaliation for an earlier government operation against the insurgents. Humanitarian observers say the brutal tactic is happening with increasing frequency.
News of the assault, one of the worst reported in the three-year insurgency, drew international condemnation. The leader of neighboring Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, tweeted "These acts of barbarity must be stamped out wherever they are found," adding that "Zimbabwe is ready to assist in any way we can."
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted: "The UK is appalled by reports of the beheading of dozens of civilians in Cabo Delgado province. This is part of a pattern of escalating attacks in north-east Mozambique. We remain in close contact with the Mozambican authorities to tackle the root causes of conflict."
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: "In Mozambique, more than 50 people have been beheaded, women have been kidnapped, villages have been pillaged and then set on fire. Barbarians hijack a religion of peace to sow terror: Islamist terrorism is an international threat that calls for an international response."
Loosely aligned with ISIS, the insurgency has undertaken increasingly sophisticated attacks in recent months, overrunning large parts of Cabo Delgado's far north. The province is home to a $60 billion natural gas development that is heavily guarded by Mozambican military and private security.