Aid agency Save the Children says Islamist militants are beheading children as young as 11 in the southeast African country of Mozambique.
One mother told the agency she watched as militants beheaded her 12-year-old son close to where she was hiding with her other children.
“That night our village was attacked, and our homes were burned,” she said. “I was at home with my four children and we tried to escape to the woods, but they captured my eldest boy and beheaded him. We couldn’t do anything because we would be killed too.”
More than 2,500 people have been killed and 700,000 have fled their homes since an Islamist insurgency linked to the Islamic State (IS) group began in the gas-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado in 2017.
In its report, Save the Children said it had spoken to displaced families who reported gruesome scenes.
It recounted how another woman said, “After my 11-year-old son was killed, we understood that it was no longer safe to stay in my village. We ran to my father’s village, but later the men came and attacked there too.”
The insurgents are known locally as Al-Shabab, Arabic for “the lads” although they have no known links to the Somali jihadi group of the same name.
“Our staff have been brought to tears by the stories of suffering told by mothers in displacement camps,” said Chance Briggs, Save the Children’s country director in Mozambique. “The attacks on children sicken us to our core.”
IS says it has carried out a number of attacks in Mozambique and appears to be promoting its involvement there as part of a “franchise” jihadi operation.
In a video last year, one militant leader described how the group wants an “Islamic government, not a government of unbelievers”, but he also cited alleged abuses by Mozambique’s military, and repeatedly complained that the government was “unfair”.
Briggs told the BBC World Service, “Mozambique is the eighth poorest country in the world. Cabo Delgado is the poorest province in Mozambique and yet there are tremendous mineral resources there and there’s a sense by some that the resources are not being shared equally.”
It is not the first time that there have been reports of beheadings in the region.
Last November, state media reported that more than 50 people had been beheaded at a football ground in Cabo Delgado.
In April last year, dozens more were beheaded or shot dead in an attack on a village.
Human rights groups say security forces have also carried human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture and killings, during operations against the jihadists.
Mozambique’s government has appealed for international help to quell the insurgency.
The US state department has designated the insurgents a terrorist organisation and on Monday, US embassy officials in the capital Maputo said American military personnel were going to spend two months training soldiers in the country, as well as providing “medical and communications equipment”.