Many expatriates and aid workers, as well as the 60,000 inhabitants of the city of Palma, were surprised by the attack, launched on Wednesday, by the Shebab (“the young”, in Arabic), an organization which controls a good part of the coastal zone of the predominantly Muslim province of Cabo Delgado, in the far north of Mozambique. The attack on the city of Palma, which fell into the hands of the rebels on Saturday, represents a decisive turning point: it is located 10 km from the operating site of the French company Total, which has discovered a huge offshore gas field and is going there. invest $ 26 billion. The day before the attack, Total had announced the resumption of work, suspended at the end of December due to insecurity.
Some 150 to 200 fighters routed a thousand government soldiers, deployed around the city and gas installations. After cutting communications, they allegedly looted a police station and two banks, before attacking residents who did not flee in time. “They went from house to house to execute the inhabitants,” says Jasmine Opperman, a South African expert with the Acled Observatory (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project).
South African mercenaries
On Saturday, the rebels set fire to the Amarula hotel, where 192 people had taken refuge while awaiting rescue by boat. Helicopters operated by the South African company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which supports the Mozambican police, were only able to evacuate 20 guests from the hotel. “We can only take five or six people per trip,” explained Max Dyck, director of DAG. The other refugees fled on Friday in 17 trucks. The convoy was attacked and only seven or eight trucks managed to pass. The others disappeared with their passengers. So far, only the death of a 40-year-old South African has been confirmed. The victim’s father and brother were only saved by hiding in the forest. The personnel at the Total base were partly evacuated by sea.
According to Jasmine Opperman, the Mozambican authorities and the international community should have taken the lead. “Three days before there were rumors of an attack, but nothing was done. It would require intervention by the UN or the European Union. Maputo’s attitude puts the whole region in peril. ” Mozambique is opposed, in fact, to any international intervention, apart from support for the training of its army. On March 15, after adding the Shebabs to the list of foreign terrorist organizations, part of ISIS, Washington dispatched 15 Green Berets to the scene. A South African company, Paramount, has also delivered helicopters and trains pilots. Involved in the field for a year, the 70 mercenaries of DAG (accused by an Amnesty International report of having shot civilians) were to pack their bags on April 6.
Since the capture of the port of Mocimboa da Praia last August, the insurgents have continued to gain ground. But a security response will not be enough, as admitted Michael Gonzales, assistant secretary in the Office of African Affairs of the US government: “We must counter the messages of the Islamic State by offering better economic opportunities” to local communities. The province of Cabo Delgado is one of the poorest in Mozambique.
A local group but African reinforcements
“Life in Palma is very difficult: gasoline costs ten times more than elsewhere and there has been no electricity for months. So far, the inhabitants have not benefited from the nearby gas exploitation ”, underlines Alain Kassa, head of mission of Médecins sans frontières in Mozambique. As Alex Vines of the Chatham House Research Institute notes, “The Shebabs have thrived on poor governance and glaring social inequalities. The big difference with the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel is that the President of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, himself comes from this remote region. But he is Catholic and the exploitation of gas has heightened local frustrations. ” According to local witnesses, the attackers who captured Palma spoke not only in local languages, but also in Swahili and Arabic. The Shebabs have reportedly received reinforcements from Tanzanians, Congolese from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) of Kivu (also rallied to the Islamic State) and even South Africans.