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U.S. counterterrorism chief says Mozambique militants are Islamic State affiliate

NAIROBI (Reuters) - The insurgency in northern Mozambique is a “committed” affiliate of Islamic State and should be seen as a global terrorism issue, the U.S. counterterrorism coordinator said on Tuesday, pledging to support the government against the militant group.

Islamist militants in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province - home to gas projects worth $60 billion - are gaining ground. Violence spilled across the border into Tanzania in October, prompting the two countries to launch joint military operations.

“The United States wants to be Mozambique’s security partner of choice,” Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales said in a call with journalists after he visited Mozambique and neighbouring South Africa.

“Regardless of the origins of these violent networks or individuals who participated in them, what we’re seeing today is a committed ISIS affiliate that embraces the ISIS ideology, that embraces the ISIS tactics and procedures, and embraces the ISIS vision of a caliphate with territorial control,” said Sales.

It was the clearest insight yet into Washington’s perspective on the escalating conflict in Mozambique.

In recent years the United States has shifted its priorities away from counterterrorism in favour of tackling what it sees as great power rivalry with China and Russia on the African continent and elsewhere.

But some analysts have warned that a wholesale retreat from helping weak states tackle insurgencies is short-sighted.

Sales said Washington could provide the Mozambican government with the capabilities to investigate and prosecute crimes and respond to attacks.

“The way to fight terrorists is not to send in a bunch of mercenaries to loot natural resources and then abscond.”

South Africa has a key role to play as an economic and military power and a strong democracy, Sales said, adding that he hoped the country would join the U.S. effort to defeat the Mozambican insurgency.

The insurgent group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama declared allegiance to Islamic State in 2019, but the exact nature of its ties with the jihadist organisation was unclear.

Reporting by David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Helen Reid in Johannesburg; Editing by Mark Heinrich