Attacks by presumed Islamic State-affiliated militants on Cabo Delgado indicate the extremists’ determination to carve out part of the country for themselves to establish a caliphate from which to plan and execute further attacks in Mozambique and southern Africa.
Less South Africans are believed to have been killed on Friday when jihadist insurgents reportedly overran a hotel in the coastal town of Palma in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
Several foreigners died when they tried to escape in a convoy from the Amarula Lodge where about 185 expatriates had been trapped, hiding in the strongroom, since the insurgents attacked the town on Wednesday afternoon. Others were killed when the insurgents finally overran the hotel. Many fled into the bush and the number of dead and injured was impossible to estimate on Friday night.
Security sources said the foreigners in the hotel had been completely abandoned by Mozambican security forces – possibly because they had run out of ammunition.
The South African private security company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) had been keeping the insurgents at bay with fire from its three light helicopter gunships until Friday afternoon. But then the DAG helicopters had to withdraw because they ran out of fuel and then night fell, sources said.
That left the expatriates in the hotel unprotected. When they saw that the insurgents appeared to have shifted their attention to a nearby location, a South African decided to lead an escape attempt, sources said.
A convoy of 17 vehicles made a dash for it but the nearby attack had apparently been just a diversion. The escape convoy ran into an insurgent ambush at the gates of the hotel complex. Three vehicles were destroyed and seven people killed. Only seven vehicles made it out, with about 40 to 50 people in them but even some of these were killed, a security source said.
“There was one car with husband and wife and two kids which got out. But the husband was killed,” a security source said.
The rest of the foreigners returned to the hotel. But soon after that the insurgents managed to breach the strongroom, sending panicked foreigners and locals fleeing into the bush, the sources said. Several were killed, including some South Africans.
“These people didn’t need to die. The whole international community has to take responsibility for this,” said an angry security analyst. “They had three days to respond and no one did. These people died for no reason.
Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) agreed. She tweeted, “Why in God’s name was no action taken in response to early warning intelligence. It’s a disgrace.”
It is not clear if the attack on Palma was in response to the return of the French energy corporation Total, which is taking the lead in exploiting the vast Rovuma offshore natural gas reserves off Cabo Delgado. Total is building its gas processing plant at Afungi which is just 15kms from Palma. Total withdrew from the area in December because of attacks by insurgents near its facilities.
On Wednesday this week, it announced it would “progressively resume construction activities at the Afungi site, following the implementation of additional site security measures.” Within hours the insurgents had launched a full-scale attack at Palma, though it seems that they did not attack Afungi.
It is not clear what role the Mozambique security force’s own helicopter gunships played in the battle. Some sources said two Russian Mi24 helicopters and one Mi17 helicopter, crewed by Ukrainians had been deployed. But some security sources said that after one of these helicopters was hit by AK47 fire from the ground, all three withdrew from combat. Other sources said one of the Mi24 crews had shot down a Mi17 as the helicopter was flying erratically and the Mi24 crew believed it had been hijacked. This could not be confirmed.
Lunga Ngqengelele, the spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation told Daily Maverick; “I can confirm as Dirco that we are aware of some of the South Africans that are in the situation in Mozambique. And through our mission (in Maputo) we are providing consular services, including finding ways to assist them to go back home, for those who are needing to go back home.”