Rebels in Mozambique left beheaded bodies on the streets in an intense fight for control of Mozambique’s strategic northern town of Palma on Monday. The heavily armed rebels interfered with the police, army, and a private military organization in many places. Thousands of people were reported missing from the town, which had around 70,000 people before the attack started last Wednesday. According to the SITE terrorist monitoring group, the Islamic State group took responsibility for the attack on Monday, saying the Islamic State Central Africa Province carried it out.
According to the insurgent statement, the assailants now control Palma’s banks, government departments, warehouses, and army barracks, and that over 55 people were killed, including Mozambican army soldiers, Christians, and foreigners. It didn’t go into any further details about the victims.
Earlier this month, the United States classified Mozambique’s rebels as a terrorist group and declared that it had sent security experts to help prepare the Mozambican military to fight them. The French oil and gas firm “Total” has made a multibillion-dollar investment in Palma to produce liquefied natural gas from offshore sites in the Indian Ocean. The gas reserves are thought to be among the world’s biggest, with total and others investing $20 billion, making it one of Africa’s largest investments.
“Total” was forced to evacuate its massive, fortified site a few miles outside of town because of the battle for Palma. According to Lionel Dyck, the Dyck Advisory Group director, a private military organization hired by Mozambican police to assist in the battle against the insurgents, the fighting spread around the town on Monday.
“There is fighting in the streets, in pockets across the town,” Dyck said.
In Palma, the Dyck Advisory Group has many helicopter gunships used to evacuate stranded civilians and battle the rebels.
“My guys are airborne, and they’ve engaged several little groups, and they’ve engaged one large group,” Dyck said. “They’ve landed in a fight to recover a couple of wounded police officers. We have also rescued many people who were trapped, 220 people at last count.”
Those saved, he said, were taken to Total’s fortified site on the southern African country’s Afungi peninsula. From there, their chartered flights will fly them to Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado province. According to Dyck, the rebels are well-armed with AK-47 assault rifles, mortars, PKM, and RPD machine guns.
“This attack is not a surprise. We’ve been expecting Palma to be whacked the moment the rains stopped and the fighting season started, which is now,” he said. “They have been preparing for this. They’ve had enough time to organize their affairs. They have a notch up in their ability. They’re more aggressive. They’re using their mortars.” There have been lots of beheadings. Right up on day one, our guys saw the drivers of trucks bringing rations of bodies to Palma. Their heads were off.”
Dyck predicted that regaining possession of Palma would be difficult for the Mozambican government.
“They must get sufficient troops to sweep through the town, go house-to-house and clean each one out. That’s the most difficult phase of warfare in the book, “Dyck said. “It will be very difficult unless there’s a competent force put in place with good command and control to retake that town. It can be done. But it will not be easy.”
The fight for Palma is close to how the rebels took over Mocimboa da Praia’s Porto in August. The rebels smuggled men into the town and lived among the inhabitants before launching a three-pronged assault. The fighting continued for over a week before the rebels seized possession of the town center and its harbor. The insurgents still control the place, about 50 miles south of Palma.
The fight for Palma is likely to escalate the humanitarian situation in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, where the rebels launched violent attacks in 2017. The insurgents started with a few bands of disgruntled and unemployed young Muslim men. Now, they likely number in the thousands.
“The attack on Palma is a game-changer in that the rebels have changed the narrative,” said an expert who visited Palma earlier this year. This is no rag-tag bunch of disconnected youths. This is a trained and determined force that has captured and held one town. It is now sustaining a battle at a very strategic center, “said the expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the visit to Palma.”
They have called into question the entire LNG (liquefied natural gas) investment, which was supposed to bring Mozambique major economic growth over many years. The Al-Shabab rebel group has been blamed for the deaths of over 2,600 people and the relocation of about 670,000 people.
“The attack on Palma has made a bad humanitarian situation worse,” said Jonathan Whittall, director of research for Doctors Without Borders, which is helping the displaced in the Pemba province, 100 miles south of Palma.
“Across Cabo Delgado, the situation is already extremely worrying, especially for those displaced by violence and for those who are in areas that are difficult for humanitarian help to reach,” Whittall said. “This attack on Palma has led to more displacement and will increase the needs that have to be addressed as a matter of urgency.” Jonathan noted that his company is looking for opportunities to improve its emergency response, adding that “For too long, northern Mozambique has been a neglected humanitarian crisis.”