Mozambique attacks: Still no word on whether SA would send troops

28 March 2021 - 19:15 By alex patrick
Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering insurgency, linked to Islamic State, that has escalated dramatically in the past year.
Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering insurgency, linked to Islamic State, that has escalated dramatically in the past year.
Image: supplied

By Sunday evening it remained unclear whether the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) would send land forces into northern Mozambique, the scene of a suspected Islamic insurgency centred on a multibillion-rand offshore gas project.

President Cyril Ramaphosa held an urgent meeting with SANDF officials on Saturday but the outcome was not known by Sunday evening. If SA decides to deploy troops, parliament has to be notified first. But Mozambique would need to ask for help, either directly or via the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

A few weeks ago, the SA Navy ramped up antipiracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel and said the patrols and continued deployment of 200 soldiers, under the SANDF’s Operation Copper, would continue until March 2023. Operation Copper began in 2011 to combat rising security threats in the channel.

But on land, SA private military service Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) has been assisting with rescue operations. A deadly attack by Islamic militants on the Palma village last week left at least seven dead and scores missing or injured.

Palma is near the $20bn Total LNG gas project, known as the Afungi site, where several foreigners, including South Africans, were working. Last week's violence follows a December attack on the Palma area which led to non-essential Total staff being evacuated from the site. Just hours before the attack, Total said security had improved and the company sent workers back in.

The Amarula Hotel in Palma had been the preferred spot for foreign contractors and aid workers because it was near the town's airstrip. Over the past few days, the hotel had been host to about 200 of these workers and others who hid for safety on Thursday. The plan was to hole up in the hotel's safe room until the militants moved through the area — but by Friday night the hotel was under siege.

Screen grabs showing DAG operatives during combat missions in support of the Mozambican police, who are fighting an insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province.
Screen grabs showing DAG operatives during combat missions in support of the Mozambican police, who are fighting an insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province.
Image: Supplied

Helicopter gunships operated by DAG had been rescuing people trapped in resorts across Palma since Wednesday, but they could carry only five or six people on each trip.

Max Dyck, CEO of DAG, which has a contract to assist the Maputo government in protecting the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado, said: “We are trying our best to bring people out from various places, including several lodges. The situation is very fluid. It's a very tough and volatile situation.”

On March 2, Amnesty International released a report titled, “What I Saw Is Death: War Crimes in Mozambique’s Forgotten Cape”, which documented serious human rights abuses in Cabo Delgado.

According to the report, the poorest province in Mozambique had seen over 1,300 civilians killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and towns and villages left in ruins by Al-Shabaab. It also detailed accounts of human rights violations by government negligence and “indiscriminate attacks” by SA private military company DAG.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher and project leader at the Institute for Security Studies, said SA had turned a blind eye to DAG and used the group as a way to assist countries like Mozambique instead of getting directly involved.

On Friday, DAG managed to rescue 20 people from the Amarula Hotel but the 172 others had no choice but to escape the resort by car convoy which was attacked. Only seven vehicles of the 17-vehicle convoy managed to escape.

The people in the other vehicles are believed to have been killed or captured. Many locals and foreigners including United Nations and NGO staff are unaccounted for.

On Sunday afternoon, a boat carrying foreigners from Afungi had docked in Pemba port, according to Human Right's Watch senior researcher Zenaida Machado.

According to Reuters, Human Rights Watch said it spoke to several people in Palma, who described people fleeing as gunshots rang out, bodies in the streets and insurgents firing at both people and buildings, before communications were cut on Wednesday.

The news agency reported that a Spanish resident managed to flee the hotel to safety and a Portuguese national had also been rescued but was injured during the fighting.

“It was not immediately clear how many people, if any, remained in the Amarula Palma hotel on Saturday and how many were missing. Contacted via Facebook, the hotel said it could not give any information.”

Dirco spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said on Saturday that SA diplomats in Maputo were working with local officials to assist affected South Africans but by Sunday there was no update.

Louw-Vaudran confirmed a meeting was held by Ramaphosa and the heads of the securities cluster but did not yet know the outcome of the meeting.

She said internationals working in Palma were not just working on the Total project, but that many were there for business opportunities resulting from the project.

These opportunities come in the form of secondary work, such as providing infrastructure in what would be a growing town.

In 2019 Trade and Indistry Minister Ebrahim Patel said South African companies could take advantage of the project by supplying R8bn worth of goods and services for the gas projects in Mozambique.

Meanwhile, Meryl Knox heard the devastating news on Friday morning that her son Adrian Nel, 40, was among those killed while fleeing the Amarula Palma Hotel on Friday.

Nel, father Greg Knox and brother Wesley Knox were among the 17-vehicle convoy ambushed by about 100 insurgents.

“From what we have heard, they left in a convoy, which broke up when they came under attack,” she told Sunday Times.

Knox, from Nkwazi in KwaZulu-Natal, said Greg and Wesley had spent the night in the bush with Adrian's body, before being rescued and taken to Pemba.

Sunday brought relief to two other South African families after Francois van Niekerk, 21, and Nicholas Alexander, 51, were found after hiding in bushes alongside other foreign nationals working in the area.

Van Niekerk had lost contact with his family on Wednesday. He was working at his father's construction business in Palma.

Alexander's daughter Jade told News24 her father had fled to the hotel with 20 of his employees from their nearby work yard, but on Friday he and at least three other people used an AK47 they found in an abandoned army vehicle to help them get to the safety of the bushes.

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