Northern Mozambique: Volunteer ships help to evacuate 1,000 from Palma after insurgent attack

Northern Mozambique: Volunteer ships help to evacuate 1,000 from Palma after insurgent attack
Jihadist insurgents linked to Islamic State overran the northern Mozambican town of Palma, sparking a Dunkirk-style rescue operation for residents by a flotilla of private vessels. (Photo: Supplied)

Many South Africans, some contractors working on the construction of the French Total energy company’s Afungi liquid natural gas processing plant, were caught up in the violence and at least one is known to have died.

In a mini “modern-day Dunkirk” operation on Sunday, a flotilla of private ships of all shapes and sizes evacuated more than 1,000 people from the battered northern Mozambique coastal town of Palma which was violently overrun by jihadist insurgents linked to Islamic State. 

In the confused aftermath of the violence, the toll of dead and injured remained unclear. Mozambique Defence Ministry spokesperson Colonel Omar Saranga told local journalists on Sunday night that “dozens” of Mozambicans had been killed in the fighting. He also confirmed that seven foreigners had been killed on Friday when a convoy of vehicles taking foreigners out of the Amarula Hotel was ambushed by terrorists. He didn’t give the nationalities of those killed.

Mozambican forces were working to evacuate any other foreigners still in Palma, Saranga said. He made no mention of South African special forces being deployed in Palma to evacuate South Africans, which suggested that Pretoria had abandoned its plans to do so. 

Saranga said doctors at the hospital in the provincial capital of Pemba had treated 35 people from Palma over the past 72 hours.

Many South Africans, some contractors working on the construction of the French Total energy company’s Afungi liquid natural gas processing plant, were caught up in the violence and at least one is known to have died. 

Security sources said on Sunday that at least 40 expatriates, including some South Africans, were still unaccounted for.    

The Mozambican army, which had largely been absent from three days of insurgent attacks, finally arrived to take control of most of Palma on Sunday, as the insurgents melted into the bush, leaving many dead, some beheaded in the trademark Islamic State manner, many missing and much of the town gutted. 

Total, which had returned to its Afungi compound near Palma only on Wednesday to resume its construction of the gas processing plant, evacuated most of its staff — about 1,000 people — on Sunday on a ferry which carried them to the safe port of Pemba, about 230km south.

Most of the 1,350 passengers were Total employees, security sources said.  Total had temporarily withdrawn from Afungi in December because of an insurgent attack nearby and announced its return on Wednesday because it said the area was now safe. The insurgents attacked Palma within hours.

On Saturday, Total issued another statement saying that after the attacks this week it had “decided to reduce to a strict minimum level the workforce on the Afungi site.

“The remobilisation of the project that was envisaged at the beginning of the week is obviously now suspended.

“Total trusts the Government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area.”

It added that no Total staff employed at Afungi were victims of the violence. 

The second withdrawal of Total has raised further questions about the viability of the vast Rovuma offshore gas reserves upon which Mozambique is relying for its future development. 

The ferry Sea Star 1, hired by Total to evacuate its staff on Sunday, was joined by several volunteer private commercial vessels which answered a call to evacuate others fleeing the insurgent violence.  

“A modern-day #dunkirk moment” was happening in Palma, a ship-watcher called Quinn tweeted. “Ships and boats of all types small and big, oil tankers and ferries to tug boats and small pleasure craft are taking people to safety risking themselves.”

He said the vessels included the roll-on, roll-off passenger ship Bluefort, the offshore tug and supply ship Pelican Unity, the general cargo vessel Sonja, and the search and rescue vessel Jack Riley. 

Quinn appeared to be speaking of risk because of other unconfirmed reports on Twitter that the insurgents had captured two vessels on Friday. But there were no reported attacks on the evacuation fleet.

A security analyst reported on Sunday that Palma remained tense while helicopters of the South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group (Dag) conducted search and rescue operations from dawn, mainly seeking expatriates. 

Dag’s Max Dyck told Daily Maverick that the company had picked up about 70 people on Sunday and about 50 on Saturday. “We have managed to clear several of the compounds in the town,” he said.

He added that both the Amarula Palma hotel and the nearby Bonnate hotel where many of the expatriate contractors had been staying, were now empty. On Friday more than 100 foreigners who had been taking refuge at the Amarula got desperate and tried to break out in a convoy of 17 vehicles.

They ran into an ambush at the hotel gates and only seven vehicles got through. As defence force spokesperson Saranga confirmed, at least seven people had been killed. One was South African Adrian Nel (40), who was in a car with his father and younger brother. Their company had been building accommodation at Afungi. 

Saranga said the military was working to flush out the terrorists from their hideouts — an implicit admission that the military was not yet in full control of the town.

Security sources said several insurgents were still hiding in residences and opening fire on government soldiers. 

They said that some of the people who arrived in Pemba on Sunday from Palma on the rescue ships were found to have dismantled weapons in their luggage and were arrested as insurgents. However, many non-insurgents in Cabo Delgado also carry weapons, for self-defence in a highly dangerous environment. 

Security sources said that the government army seemed to be reinforcing Mueda, west of Palma, fearing that it could be the next target of the insurgents. 

The security sources said local police had reported that the insurgents who attacked Palma were well armed and equipped, and there were several light- or white-skinned individuals in the insurgent ranks. 

The implication seemed to be that foreigners have joined the ranks of the insurgency, but this remains unconfirmed. DM


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