The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a city in northern Mozambique last week that forced hundreds of foreign contractors to flee amid fierce fighting.
Local police and soldiers were reported to have secured control of most of Palma on Monday, after hundreds of Islamist insurgents who invaded the small port last week withdrew into the surrounding forests and fields leaving a trail of devastation.
In a statement issued on official media channels, Isis claimed that the insurgents killed more than 55 members of the local and Christian security forces, including those from “crossed nations”, and destroyed official buildings and banks.
The total death toll in the attack is unclear, although authorities in Mozambique have confirmed the deaths of seven people and several witnesses have reported roads and beaches littered with bodies.
Authorities in the southern African country said security forces were working to “eliminate some pockets of resistance” after spending three days focusing on rescuing local and foreign citizens.
However, diplomats and other observers say that insurgents maintain control of much of the interior of Palma, which is a key logistics hub for foreign companies looking to exploit vast natural gas reserves worth $ 60 billion (£ 43 billion) in the province of Cabo Delgado.
Omar Saranga, a spokesman for Mozambique’s security and defense forces, confirmed on Sunday that at least seven people had been shot dead during an ambush in their convoy as they tried to flee Palma.
Hundreds of people, including many foreigners, were evacuated from Palma over the weekend by helicopter and in a makeshift flotilla of local boats and boats, or fled. Tens of thousands of locals have also fled the road attack, with some walking up to 50 kilometers to safety.
With most communications cut off, information on the situation remained incomplete. Several security sources involved in the operations said that 60 people based in Palma, mostly foreign nationals, who were missing have now been counted. Others reported ongoing operations to rescue up to 30 who are said to still be hiding in the woods between six and 12 miles from the city.
“The real question now is how the heck was this allowed to happen? How was this possible? It is clear that the insurgents have better intelligence than the government, ”said the owner of a South African-based private security company operating in Palma and the surrounding areas, who asked to remain anonymous.
The clashes last week came after a series of increasingly daring operations by militants of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah Movement (ASWJ).
The group maintains control of much of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, 50 miles south of Palma, which it seized last year.
Palma is the home base for many foreign contractors who have been working on a multi-million dollar liquefied natural gas project run by the French energy company Total.
Security sources said insurgents had infiltrated the area around the city prior to that attack, hiding weapons in hiding places. Many were disguised as members of the community and some wore army or police uniforms.
Government infrastructure in the city was systematically targeted, with the local police station and military base invaded and destroyed, while at least two banks were raided, local security sources said.
A group of at least 120 insurgents arrived from the northern regions of Cabo Delgado, while a group of similar size was said to have crossed from Tanzania to reinforce the attackers on the second day of the assault, the sources said.
International Crisis Group analysts say the largest cohort of foreigners fighting within ASWJ’s ranks are from Tanzania.
The three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado province has killed more than 2,600 people and displaced about 670,000, according to the UN.
Most observers believe that the insurgents in Mozambique have limited international ties, although the ASWJ considers itself affiliated with ISIS in the United States.
“While there is evidence that Isis has had some contact with jihadists in Mozambique, it is not clear how close or significant their ties are … Communication between the groups and some coordination in the dissemination of propaganda does not suggest particularly close ties.” . the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.
When the attack began last week, several hundred workers from South Africa, Britain and France sought refuge in hotels in the city, and an estimated 200 were besieged at the Amarula Hotel alone. After a failed attempt to escape by sea, a convoy of vehicles attempted to flee the besieged hotel and reach the coast before being ambushed twice.
Security call recordings reviewed by The Guardian described scenes of chaos as helicopters and boats operated by various security companies attempted to remove those trapped in the city. A South African woman, Meryl Knox, told Reuters that her son Adrian Nel had been killed in that ambush.
A rescued foreigner described the city being invaded before being rescued by security contractors from Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a private security company.
“The Amarula shelter was completely surrounded and under attack by mortars and machine guns,” said a South African. “And these guys [from DAG] they entered with their helicopters and cleared the perimeter to take out at least four helicopter loads of people. Twenty three of us. Fortunately, he was in the last helicopter, because they stopped for lack of fuel and daylight. “
He added that the people who were staying in Amarula had to “flee because the place was being attacked with heavy weapons.”
Lionel Dyck, a former South African soldier who runs DAG, told South African television that he had warned of such an attack some time ago. The company was recently charged in a report from Amnesty International of killing civilians, an accusation he denies.
“This is the time of the post-rain fighting season. It has been on the cards for a long time, and we are disappointed that the people of Palma have made very little attempt to protect themselves, ”said Dyck.
“This insurrection has gone from being a group of well-armed bandits to [launching] a very well planned and coordinated attack. They have been very effective [and pose] quite a serious threat now. “
On Sunday ships began arriving in Pemba, a port 155 miles south of Palma, carrying locals and foreigners. One was carrying about 1,300 people, a diplomat said.
Total said Saturday it would cancel a planned construction restart on its $ 20 billion development after the attack and reduce its workforce to a “strict minimum.”
The company retired most of its workforce in January due to security concerns.
Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, said the scale and intensity of the Palma attack suggested meticulous planning, likely during a lull in the fighting during the rainy season in the first three months. of this year.
“It is a clear demonstration that [the insurgency] it has steadily increased its military capabilities, grown in sophistication, and retained initiative. The last attack … is a big setback for [the government of Mozambique] and raises serious doubts about its ability to ensure the safety of [gas] projects vital to the long-term financial stability of the country, ”said Raymakers.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism