Militants have briefly seized a strategic port city on the eastern African coast, pushing foreign contractors to flee and creating chaos unseen for a long time.
When militants attacked Palma, a gas-rich port town, in northern Mozambique on Wednesday, the eastern African nation’s government almost stopped functioning. The government gave no statement until Sunday.
“The real question now is how the hell this was allowed to happen? How was this even possible. It’s clear that the insurgents have got better intelligence than the government,” said an anonymous source, who leads a South Africa-based private security firm, operating in Palma and the nearby areas.
Dozens of people were killed, said Omar Saranga, spokesman for the Mozambique Defense and Security Forces, on Sunday. It seems a number of deaths occurred during a rescue operation of trapped foreign workers in a hotel in Palma.
Daesh claims responsibility for the attacks. The terror group briefly took over the control of the port city, where foreign companies like France’s Total operate to conduct oil exploration efforts and other businesses. Wednesday's incident showed that the armed group still exists and has the capacity to capture territories like Palma.
"Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the Al Shabab fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings," the rights group said in a statement last week.
Al Shabab has no direct connection with the Somali group, carrying the same name. While the US believes Al Shabab has connections with Daesh, International Crisis Group (ICG) research does not find “especially close links”.
Failed rescue operation
According to sources, after the deadly attacks, there was a rescue operation to get both foreign and local workers out of the town. Around 180 people, including foreign workers, had been trapped in a hotel for three days under the siege of militants. Most foreign workers were from Britain, France and South Africa.
Sources could not say whether the Mozambique government forces or private military contractors were conducting the rescue operation. Companies like Total rely heavily on private military contractors to provide security to their business operations in places like Mozambique.
Sources say that 17 vehicles left Palma on Friday to reach a Total natural gas project facility on the Afungi Peninsula, but only seven of them could reach safety. Some of those cars came under the Daesh attack. Several people were reportedly killed.
There is no reliable information on what happened to the other ten vehicles and their riders. At least 50 people were unaccounted for, sources say. They fear the number could increase.
Like the land rescue operation, locals and foreign workers who were targeted could not be brought to safety by sea as Daesh-linked militants allegedly opened fire on vessels, preventing them from picking up people from the coastline.
But some were lucky. About 120 foreign workers, and some others, managed to reach a nearby port from where they were brought to safety by a ferry. They were taken to Pemba, a port which is 200 kilometres away from Palma.
Expecting no help from either the Mozambique government or private military contractors, tens of thousands of locals from Palma took to the roads to get away from the violence, walking about 50 kilometres to reach a safe zone.
Some accounts suggest that the town was partly secured by private security contractors like Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). Amnesty International has recently accused DAG of killing civilians.
History of attacks
The latest bloody attack has drawn attention to Mozambique, a country that has suffered from militant attacks in recent years. Most have been carried out by Al Shabab, an extremist group.
Armed attacks have left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and at least 2,000 dead. Half of these people are civilians, according to the UN. Al Shabab controls much of Mocimboa da Praia, a port town 80 kilometres away from Palma. Both towns were located in Cabo Delgado province, a gas-rich region, where Al Shabab began forming its own network several years ago.
A lot of Cabo Delgado residents have been frustrated by poverty and unemployment, while foreign companies like Total, ExxonMobil and five other international firms, continue to operate in Mozambique. France's Total has invested in the $20 billion gas project in Cabo Delgado, and Palma was its chief base in the province.
In 2017, Al Shabab’s first armed attack came after some poverty-stricken fishermen and petty traders of Cabo Delgado reportedly joined the group after years of frustration and disillusionment with the government, according to a report written by International Crisis Group (ICG).
The same year police abuse of local miners in Montepuez, located in Cabo Delgado, came to the fore. The miners were arrested on the grounds that they were mining without permits near a ruby mine controlled by the British company, Gemfields. The victims joined the ranks of Al Shabab later on, according to ICG research.
Most of the attackers in the recent Palma episode came from Cabo Delgado while others belonged to neighbouring Tanzania.
“This insurrection has grown from a well-armed group of bandits to [launching] a very well planned and coordinated attack. They have been very effective [and pose] quite a serious threat now,” said Lionel Dyck, the director of DAG.
Mozambique had been colonised by Portugal for more than four centuries. The country gained its independence in 1975.