The first thing people in the Mozambican city of Palma knew of the attack by Islamist militants was the sound of gunfire that erupted at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
A hotbed of natural gas development in the Indian Ocean, the city, located near the border with Tanzania, was the target of sustained attacks from two directions by the Isis-affiliated group al-Shabaab, which has mounted a campaign of terror. growing in the north. Cabo Delgado region. The group has no known connection to Somali jihadists of that name, and has been active in Cabo Delgado since 2017, but its attacks have become much more frequent and deadly over the past year.
The image of what happened precisely between Wednesday and Sunday, when a flotilla of boats rescued hundreds of people, including many foreign workers, from the beaches of Palma, remains deeply confused.
But emerging tales paint the picture of a brutal siege that lasted for days and deadly ambushes of those who fled. Survivors have described that they had to hide while waiting to be rescued by boat from a town where headless bodies were dumped on the road.
“It was total chaos,” said Lionel Dyck, founder of the South African private security company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which helped evacuate several of those trapped in helicopters. “They completely wreaked havoc, and there was no evacuation plan.”
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Dyck harshly criticized the lack of a proper evacuation plan for the city, which many saw as an unavoidable target for militants after the rainy season, due to the absence of the Mozambican army and Total’s refusal to provide its helicopter crews with much-needed fuel.
The militants, who cut telephone lines upon entering Palma, knew it was a high-value target after attacking it a year ago. Located near a billion-dollar gas field development project in Afungi, run by French energy company Total, the former fishing village has seen new hotels spring up to house foreign workers.
Among them is Amarula Lodge, a complex of cabanas around a pool near the beach to which foreign workers fled when militants approached and besieged the hotel.
Total’s workers had only returned to Amarula on the day the siege began, having been evacuated following an earlier security scare, suggesting meticulous planning on the part of the attackers comprising two groups, one advancing towards Palma from further north and the second crossing from Tanzania to Mozambique on the second day of the battle.
Describing the early part of the battle last week, Dyck said his staff came across the headless bodies of roadside food truck drivers killed by insurgents.
“It is very gloomy. When we got there the first day there were bodies lying on the road. [Food truck drivers were] lying on the road without their heads. During the first night they went from house to house and killed selected people. “
By Thursday, with militants in control of much of the city and Mozambican forces overwhelmed, the situation at Amarula Lodge was desperate. Those inside were saying SOS to helicopters in the air with whitewashed stones.
A South African who was rescued early in the siege described that the city had been invaded. “The Amarula shelter was completely surrounded and under attack by mortars and machine guns. And these guys [DAG] they entered with their helicopters and cleared the perimeter to take out at least four helicopters full of people: 23 of us.
“I was in the last helicopter, fortunately, because they stopped for lack of fuel and daylight.”
The largest Hind helicopters, capable of carrying 30 to 40 people and run by a second security company, Paramount, appear to have been forced to withdraw from rescue efforts for 36 hours after being attacked.
According to the audio of the security information calls that were relayed to the Guardian, a second plan, for the smaller DAG helicopters to give air cover to a convoy of people trapped in the Amarula Lodge so that they could reach the beach and be rescued by boat, collapsed. . The pilots reported no signs of nearby ships, and there were reports of ships elsewhere being repulsed by mortar and machine gun fire.
On Thursday night, the DAG helicopters withdrew, low on fuel and ammunition and unable to operate in the dark.
At that moment, the South African said, those inside the shelter sent one last desperate call for help and decided to “flee.” [the following day] because the place was being assaulted with heavy weapons ”, despite the DAG’s advice to stay put and wait for a rescue due to the risk of ambush on the road.
On Friday afternoon, 17 off-road vehicles gathered in the hotel parking lot and were loaded with as many as they could carry, perhaps unaware that the militants were in control of the nearby coastal highway that runs parallel to the beach.
“They headed for the coast,” said the South African. “They went through two ambushes. One of my supervisors died. And I don’t know how many others. “
The first ambush, by all accounts, was almost through the hotel doors, and the second hit the cars a little later. Of the 17 vehicles that were launched, only seven escaped the siege, and of those seven cars, seven people were killed and several more were injured.
Among the dead was Adrian Nel, 40, a South African who worked in the construction of houses for the Total gas plant in Afungi, who was traveling in a car with his father and younger brother.
A British citizen working for RA International, a contractor company based in Dubai, also disappeared.
In interviews, Nel’s mother, Meryl Knox, said that her husband, Gregory, managed to get out of Palma carrying her son’s body and was rescued. His other son was also able to escape.
“This could have been avoided,” he added. “My son could still be alive today.”
By Sunday, when Mozambican forces appeared to be gaining control of the city again and militants retreated into the bush, rescue boats, including a tugboat, a supply ship, and a ferry chartered by Total, were able to reach many. of the trapped. , rescuing hundreds as DAG helicopters joined the search for dozens who were still missing in the convoy attack.
Commenting on the level of planning involved in the attack, Nathan Hayes, Africa analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit He said: “The insurgent attack appears to be well planned and organized, with sophisticated military tactics employed, suggesting that the attacks were not purely reactionary to Total’s earlier announcement.
“The insurgents, however, would have known that the work in Area 1 [the Total Afungi site] It would soon resume, and the liquefied natural gas sector is an important target. “
As the cost to families, Total and Mozambique’s energy business begins to count, for now the effort is focused on the missing who may still be alive and hiding in the jungle.
On Monday, new hope was awakened when two of DAG’s helicopters were sent north of the city to meet with a group of between 30 and 50 people who had hidden in the bush some 12 miles (20 km) from Palma. .
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism