Militant attacks in northern Mozambique have created a "worsening humanitarian crisis", the UN says, estimating that over half a million people had now fled their homes.

Displaced women at the Centro Agrio de Napala where hundreds of displaced arrived in recent months are sheltered, fleeing attacks by armed insurgents in different areas of the province of Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique, December 11, 2020 .
Displaced women at the Centro Agrio de Napala where hundreds of displaced arrived in recent months are sheltered, fleeing attacks by armed insurgents in different areas of the province of Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique, December 11, 2020 . (AFP)

Over half a million people have fled their homes due to an insurgency in northern Mozambique, and the violence and humanitarian crisis is worsening without international help.

"If nothing is done soon, we won't have only 535,000 displaced people. We won't have only 2,000 people killed by the conflict, but tens of thousands," said Valentin Tapsoba, regional director for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) on Wednesday.

The displaced people were in a dire situation, with overcrowding, malnutrition and a lack of essentials including food and water, the officials said in an online news briefing.

A shadowy militant group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama has wreaked havoc in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017, ransacking villages in a campaign to establish a caliphate. 

At least 2,500 people have died, over half of them civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) group.

Thousands have fled their homes, mainly seeking refuge with friends and relatives in the regional capital Pemba.

The conflict has escalated since, with attacks growing in scale and frequency and the militants regularly taking and holding entire towns.

"The United Nations is deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis and escalating violence forcing thousands to flee in Cabo Delgado province," the UN's southern and eastern Africa directors said in a joint statement.

READ MORE: UN: Global displacement toll beyond 80M as more people flee 2020 conflicts

Help offering from S.Africa

The insecurity has left aid agencies unable to visit a huge swathe of the coastal province, while the number of people forced to flee their homes has swelled from 18,000 at the start of 2020 to over half a million by the end, Lola Castro, World Food Programme (WFP) regional director said.

Some households in the provincial capital Pemba are hosting several other families. One had opened its home to 66 other people who all slept in one room and shared one latrine, Tapsoba said.

"The situation in Cabo Delgado is appalling," he said.

"We reckon that 1.6 million people are in need of help," UN resident Mozambique coordinator Myrta Kaulard said in an online press briefing.

"There is a cholera epidemic in Cabo Delgado that we are struggling to contain," she added.

South Africa has offered to help Mozambique resolve its northern conflict, as the main player in the Southern African Development Community, a regional trade bloc, but Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor told a virtual Chatham House event that the government had yet to take up the offer.

"We have made every effort to reach out to the government of Mozambique and to sit with them to define a support agenda," she said.

"Our inability ... to arrive at an agreement as to what ... support we might provide remains a very worrying puzzle to us," she said.

There was no immediate reply from Mozambique's government to a request for comment.

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French Total cut operations

Mozambique's army has struggled to regain control of Cabo Delgado, which is also home to Africa's three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects.

Large swathes of territory have been seized by militants, including the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia, around 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of a $20 billion gas exploration project led by French energy giant Total.

After the rebels’ January 1 attack on Quitunda village, just outside the fence of the gas project, the company removed most of its workforce, estimated at 3,000, from the Afungi peninsula.

“In view of the evolving security situation in Cabo Delgado province," Total “decided to reduce the number of personnel present at the Afungi site,” the company announced in a statement Monday.

Total "is taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of its staff and subcontractors,” its statement said.

Work at the site has been suspended, according to the Zitamar news agency. Total has cut back operations to a bare minimum, evacuating staff and contractors by air.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi met with Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne this week and vowed to "establish a security plan" to protect the project.

Total paid $3.9 billion in September 2019 for a 26 percent share of the project which was to begin production in 2024.

READ MORE: UN predicts record 235M people will need relief in 2021 because of pandemic

Source: TRTWorld and agencies