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Analysts expecting another attack ‘in the next few months’ in northern Mozambique

More than 8 000 refugees have converged on the provincial capital of Pemba following the siege of Palma in Mozambique’s most northern province of Cabo Delgado two weeks ago.

According to Zvika Karadi, a Pemba businessman who lost millions of rands of earthmoving equipment in Palma after insurgents set it alight, the town was deserted this week, except for a few looters extracting what they could carry from the burnt shops. Communication lines are still down and reception masts destroyed. 

Karadi took video footage showing the destruction of the town and his plant, with decomposing bodies still left on the streets where they were mowed down in a bloody insurgent assault that started on 24 March.

“Just outside the Amarula Hotel, where contractors hid during the assault, we found a shallow grave with some 12 bodies — all men with their hands tied behind their backs. They are lighter skinned than the Mozambicans and the locals don’t know them at all. 

They might have been with the attackers,” Karadi said after he returned to Palma to search for some of his missing employees. 

He said he was also assisting in organising the return of at least 300 contracting staff that were left behind as residents fled.

During the Palma attack, the insurgents “resupplied” themselves by looting food trucks from the World Food Programme and decapitating the drivers in the process, Lionel Dyck from the private military company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) previously told the Mail & Guardian.  

Helicopters belonging to DAG were in action in Palma as part of its contract with the Mozambican police. A barge, the Alpha Jimbo, which was anchored a few hundred metres offshore, was also looted.

According to analysts from Willsher & Associates — a risk analysis company for Africa and the Middle East — the insurgents can move faster with fresh supplies of food and a newly acquired fleet of vehicles, while they have the upper-hand over the Mozambican forces.

Earlier this week there were unconfirmed reports on social media of a possible Islamist militant presence in the Namacande area of Muidumbe district, some 200km southwest of Palma. According to the analysts, this could indicate that the insurgents might be using their newly acquired mobility to deploy their fighters faster.

Pemba is 300 kilometres away from Muidumbe. As the most strategic coastal town in the province, fears are real amongst the residents of Pemba that they might be next in the crosshairs of the extremist insurgents affiliated to the Islamic State terror group. 

Boatloads of Palma residents were evacuated to Pemba following the attack, with United Nations agencies trying to record all the new arrivals. But many are entering Pemba by foot. According to businesspeople in the town and security analysts who spoke to the M&G, this provides ideal cover for insurgents to gradually populate themselves around Pemba.

According to a former South African military officer who now has business interests in Mozambique and wants to be anonymous, Pemba was meant to serve as the hub for the whole developing liquefied natural gas industry in Cabo Delgado. 

“The Mozambican navy trained their members in Pemba. When the South African navy was still conducting patrols along the coast as part of a maritime security agreement with Mozambique and Tanzania, it used Pemba as its base,” the former officer told the M&G.

“Most of the subcontractors for Total, who were developing the gas field at Afungi, close to Palma, are staying in Pemba. If I was an extremist, my forward teams would have been deployed with the refugees, because blending in with the communities has been how they operate.”

A senior risk analyst at British company IHS Markit, Eva Renon, said pre-emptive attacks on villages close to Pemba can be expected within the next two to three months. 

“It has been a destination and a transit hub for most of the 700 000 internally displaced persons who have fled from the northern part of Cabo Delgado. All roads north of Pemba and east of Mueda are under control of the insurgents and road ambushes are systematic,” she said.

“The attack [on Palma] is the largest to date in the insurgency [starting in 2017] and is very likely to have required more planning and a greater number of fighters than in previous attacks, demonstrating increased capability.

“Unless the security situation changes significantly, in the next six months, insurgents are likely to attempt to capture Pemba. They will probably target beachfront hotels, government facilities and the personnel and assets of non-governmental organisations, the Catholic Church and the United Nations.”

Renon said the same is likely in Tanzania’s Mtwara, just across the Mozambican border, where hundreds of refugees also fled. 

Renon said while the Mozambican government and its armed forces have been described as being “weak” in their response to the attacks, it is less likely that the insurgents will be able to capture and hold Mtwara because the Tanzanian security forces are more capable.

According to some expat residents of Pemba who spoke to the M&G, they began meeting informally in the past week in an effort to prepare for a possible onslaught and have even been contemplating to erect bulletproof shelters. 

“The main topic of conversation is the decision not to renew the DAG contract. They were the only effective countermeasure against the insurgents,” one expat said.

Another South African company, Paramount, was contracted last year by the Mozambican department of defence.

As part of this contract, two Russian-made Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters, as well as some light Gazelle helicopters flown by contracted Ukrainian and also freshly trained Mozambican pilots will form part of Mozambique’s defences.

“Some of our residents are leaving Pemba or have started [making] plans to leave. There are contractors who have lost all of their equipment and vehicles in Palma. They still owe the banks and have nothing left to continue their work. We have to fend for ourselves – very much like we had to in Palma,” the expat said.

Helicopters belonging to DAG — a private military company — were in action in Palma as part of its contract with the Mozambican police. A barge, the Alpha Jimbo, which was anchored a few hundred metres offshore, was also looted.

According to analysts from Willsher and Associates — a risk analysis company for Africa and the Middle East — the insurgents can move faster with fresh supplies of food and a newly acquired fleet of vehicles, while they have the upper-hand over the Mozambican forces.

Earlier this week there were unconfirmed reports on social media of a possible Islamist militant presence in the Namacande area of Muidumbe district, some 200km southwest of Palma. According to the analysts, this could indicate that the insurgents might be using their newly acquired mobility to deploy their fighters faster.

Pemba is 300 kilometres away from Muidumbe. As the most strategic coastal town in the province, fears are real amongst the residents of Pemba that they might be next in the crosshairs of the extremist insurgents affiliated to the Islamic State terror group. 

Boatloads of Palma residents were evacuated to Pemba following the attack, with United Nations agencies trying to record all the new arrivals. But many are entering Pemba via foot. According to businesspeople in the town and security analysts who spoke to the Mail and Guardian, this provides the ideal cover for insurgents to gradually populate themselves around Pemba.

According to a former South African military officer who now has business interests in Mozambique and wants to remain anonymous, Pemba was supposed to serve as the hub for the whole developing liquefied natural gas industry in Cabo Delgado. 

“The Mozambican navy trained their members in Pemba. When the South African navy was still conducting patrols along the coast as part of a maritime security agreement with Mozambique and Tanzania, it used Pemba as its base,” the former officer told the M&G

“Most of the subcontractors for Total, who were developing the gas field at Afungi, close to Palma, are staying in Pemba. If I was an extremist, my forward teams would have been deployed with the refugees, because blending in with the communities has been how they operate.”

A senior risk analyst at British company IHS Markit, Eva Renon, says pre-emptive attacks on villages close to Pemba can be expected within the next two to three months. 

Refugees from Palma have fled to the port town of Pemba for safety. (Photo by Alfredo Zuniga/AFP)

“It has been a destination and a transit hub for most of the 700 000 internally displaced persons who have fled from the northern part of Cabo Delgado. All roads north of Pemba and east of Mueda are under control of the insurgents and road ambushes are systematic,” according to Renon.

“The attack [on Palma] is the largest to date in the insurgency [starting in 2017] and is very likely to have required more planning and a greater number of fighters than in previous attacks, demonstrating increased capability.

“Unless the security situation changes significantly, in the next six months insurgents are likely to attempt to capture Pemba. They will probably target beachfront hotels, government facilities and the personnel and assets of non-governmental organisations, the Catholic Church and the United Nations.”

Renon says the same is likely in Tanzania’s Mtwara, just across the Mozambican border, where hundreds of refugees also fled. 

Renon says while the Mozambican government and its armed forces have been described as being “weak” in their response to the attacks, it is less likely that the insurgents will be able to capture and hold Mtwara because the Tanzanian security forces are more capable.

According to some expat residents of Pemba who have spoken to the M&G, they have started meeting informally in the past week in an effort to prepare for a possible onslaught and have even been erecting bulletproof shelters. 

One expat resident said that “the main topic of conversation is the decision not to renew the DAG contract. They were the only effective countermeasure against the insurgents”.

DAG left Mozambique on 4 April after its contract was not renewed.

Another South African company, Paramount, was contracted last year by the Mozambican department of defence.

As part of this contract, two Russian-made Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters, as well as some light Gazelle helicopters flown by contracted Ukrainian and also freshly trained Mozambican pilots will form part of Mozambique’s defences.

“Some of our residents are leaving Pemba or have started [making] plans to leave. There are contractors who have lost all of their equipment and vehicles in Palma. They still owe the banks and have nothing left to continue their work. We have to fend for ourselves – very much like we had to in Palma,” said the expat.

SADC to decide on way forward in Mozambique

While the Mozambican army can continue with its efforts on the land side, the fastest and most logical intervention now is for the South African navy to restart its maritime patrols along the Mozambican coast, according to Tim Walker, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

These patrols, codenamed “Operation Copper”, have stopped due to constraints in the defence budget. Operation Copper started some 10 years ago as part of agreements signed by South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania to fight piracy along the east coast.

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the operation for another year at a cost of R145-million without a single patrol taking place, says Walker. In March this year, Ramaphosa extended the operation again at a cost of R38-million.

“The strategic environment has since changed significantly, and maritime security should become its aim especially with the militants’ renewed successes. These patrols should have started already.”

An urgent extraordinary double troika summit was called for Wednesday and Thursday, 7 and 8 April, in the Mozambican capital of Maputo by the Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation. 

The summit was called by Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, who chairs the organ. Ramaphosa was set to attend the meeting with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania also represented.

“The SADC will have to take some firm decisions and cannot be seen as dependent only on private military companies to provide security in a situation which affects stability in the whole region,” said Walker. 

“While [Mozambican President Filipe] Nyusi has not wanted to allow an intervention by either the African Union or SADC, the latter — with all its promises in the past of mobilising a standby or rapid deployment force in security situations like in Mozambique – faces an existential crisis if it cannot intervene now.

“The humanitarian tragedy and security catastrophe which is playing out in Cabo Delgado can reverberate for years as an indication of all of the countries in southern Africa’s inability to secure the region against extremist insurgencies.”

The former military officer believes it is too late now to worry about political sensitivities. Portugal has indicated its willingness to deploy forces to the country.

“Nyusi should accept the offer and ask for the maximum number of troops to deploy to Pemba as soon as possible. France, with its defence capability stationed in Mayotte, could assist with maritime patrols,” said Walker. 

“The United States already has special forces training the Mozambican soldiers in Maputo. They should train these forces to operate in small teams. Mozambique should pay its armed forces better and regularly to ensure that they don’t change sides to the better-paying insurgents.

“South Africa and the rest of SADC can assist with the rapid training of further Mozambican units while the private military companies already contracted, can use the trained teams in Cabo Delgado. There is no time to waste anymore unless SADC wants to witness the total collapse of security in Mozambique.” 

This article has been edited to reflect that Paramount group is not taking over the DGA contract as previously stated.

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