Mozambique: Up to 60 missing after insurgents attack convoy
In this file photo taken on February 16th, 2017, a Mozambican woman walks in Palma, a small, palm-fringed fishing town meant to become a symbol of Mozambique’s glittering future, transformed by one of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas projects. Photograph: Getty Images
As many as 60 people – mostly foreign citizens – are unaccounted for following a deadly ambush on their convoy by Islamist militants in northern Mozambique.
According to recordings of security calls reviewed by the Guardian describing the aftermath of the attack, only seven vehicles in a convoy of 17 made it to safety after the attack on Friday, with seven confirmed dead and many injured in the recovered vehicles. Everyone in the other vehicles is assumed dead.
The details of the attack came after reports that South Africa was considering sending military forces as part of a mission to rescue its civilians left in the town.
Islamist rebels attacked Palma – where many foreign contractors have been working for a multibillion-dollar liquified natural gas project run by the French energy company Total – on Wednesday, leading to five days of fighting so far.
A few hundred foreign workers from South Africa, Britain and France sought refuge at hotels that quickly became targets for rebel attacks – an estimated 200 foreign workers were believed to be in the Hotel Amarula alone. After a failed attempt to escape by sea, a convoy of vehicles attempted to flee the besieged hotel and reach the coast before they were ambushed twice.
One of the dead in the convoy was identified in South African media as Adrian Nel, who was reportedly killed when he, his father and younger brother joined the convoy that attempted to break out of the Amarula Lodge hotel.
Nel’s body and family members were eventually rescued by helicopter on Saturday morning and taken to the nearby – and heavily defended – Afungi liquid natural gas facility being constructed by Total.
Nel had only been in the coastal town since January, where he had been contracted to build accommodation for gas workers.
His mother, Meryl Knox, told Agence-France Presse: “As they were leaving, they were ambushed. They shot my son.
“There’s no way to possibly describe what you feel when you get news like that. It’s just devastating, body numbing, mind numbing.”
The recordings describe scenes of chaos as helicopters and boats run by several security companies attempted to extract those trapped in the town. One convoy was hit in an ambush almost as soon as it had left the Amarula hotel.
In one recording, a contractor describes the aftermath of the ambush. “That thing Pierre was describing. It was 17 vehicles. We know a lot of the guys involved in that convoy. Seventeen vehicles left Amarula.
“Only seven of the vehicles made it through. In those seven vehicles that made it through were seven confirmed killed. Quite few of them had been shot and injured but they are still alive.
“The other 10 vehicles never made it through. They are unaccounted for and are basically all assumed dead.”
With hundreds of expats initially reported trapped in the town in the aftermath of the attack, private security contractors had warned of the risk of an “absolute bloodbath”.
Between 50 and 60 people – understood to be mainly foreign nationals – were in the 10 missing vehicles. It is feared that they all died in the attack in what the US embassy in Maputo is calling a “horrific situation”.
Amid considerable confusion over the situation, a spokesperson for Mozambique’s defence and security forces confirmed the death of seven people in the convoy including foreigners, adding that hundreds of other people, both locals and foreigners, had been rescued from the town.
Omar Saranga added that “dozens” of other people had been killed in the town during the fighting.
The town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province was attacked by Islamist insurgents on Wednesday, with witnesses reported seeing bodies in the streets after the insurgents, believed to be affiliated with the terrorist group Isis, attacked Palma from three directions.
Among those in the evacuation convoy are understood to be many foreign workers as well as Mozambicans.
Those sheltering at the hotel had initially been told they would be rescued by boat on Thursday from a nearby beach with helicopters providing air cover, but when boats did not arrive, they decided to make a run for it on Friday.
The audio describing the response to the attack narrated scenes of carnage as at least one private security contractor struggled to respond to rescue staff while others ran low on fuel and ammunition.
According to audio describing the situation following the attack, passed on to the Guardian, another 150 people had been under siege at a compound in the Hotel Amarula without ammunition and had sent out a final SOS saying they did not “expect to make it through the night”.
Security teams for Total described their boats as having come under fire and being unable to evacuate from a nearby beach.
Human Rights Watch said that witnesses described seeing “bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings”.
Estimates of the number of those missing varied. Martin Ewi, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies, said that “over 100” people were still unaccounted for since the attack. “That’s what we know so far,” he said, but added that the situation on the ground was confusing.
According to other accounts, almost the entire town was destroyed in the attack. “As locals fled to the bush, workers from LNG companies, including foreigners, took refuge in Hotel Amarula, where they are waiting to be rescued,” a worker told the AFP news agency, on condition of anonymity.
The Mozambican military was reported to be struggling with its own dead and wounded from the attack after being completely overrun.
Mozambique’s insurgents are known locally as al-Shabaab, although they do not have any known connection to Somalia’s jihadist rebels of that name. The rebels have been active in Cabo Delgado province since 2017, but their attacks have become much more frequent and deadly over the past year. The three-year insurgency by the rebels, primarily disaffected young Muslim men, in the northern Cabo Delgado province has taken more than 2,600 lives and displaced an estimated 670,000 people, according to the UN. – Guardian