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EXPLAINER: Who are the rebels in northern Mozambique?

ANDREW MELDRUM, Associated Press

Updated: April 2, 2021 12:38 a.m.

In this image taken from militant video released by the Islamic State group on Monday March 29, 2021, purporting to show fighters near the strategic north eastern Mozambique town of Palma, as the militant group claimed it had taken control of the area after five days of conflict. The video from the Islamic State group claims to show fighters in or near Palma, but cannot be independently verified by The Associated Press. (AMAQ Militant video via AP)AMAQ/APShow More

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — With more than a week of fierce fighting including beheaded bodies in the streets, the battle for the northern Mozambique town of Palma has highlighted the southern Africa country’s insurgency and threats to its multibillion-dollar investments.

Here's a look at what is known about the rebel group and the challenges facing Mozambique.

WHO ARE THE REBELS?

They're mostly unemployed young Muslim men from Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province on the country's long Indian Ocean coastline.

For centuries, most people there have been Muslims who traded with Swahili dhow sailors and coexisted with Catholicism brought by Portuguese colonial rulers.

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Despite rich natural resources, the province has been one of Mozambique's least developed, with low levels of education, health services, and nutrition.

In recent years some unemployed youths have studied abroad on scholarships from Muslim organizations and locals say many returned preaching a more radical form of Islam. In 2017, violence erupted against government targets by a few small bands, often using machetes to kill police and officials.

The rebels have grown to several hundred, they use motorcycles and are now well-armed with automatic weapons and mortars. Military experts say many weapons come from abroad.

WHAT ARE THEY CALLED?

They are known locally as al-Shabab — Arabic for “youth” — but it seems to be just a handy nickname as they don't have any known affiliation with Somalia's jihadi rebels of the same name.

For a few years, the insurgents didn't appear to be linked to any group, but in 2019, the Islamic State group began claiming responsibility for their attacks, calling them the Islamic State Central African Province.

IS also posts photos and videos of the militants, often standing by the group's black flag. A video posted this week showed them dressed in a mix of camouflage and black shirts and red scarves, and speaking Swahili and some Arabic.