South Africa on Saturday considered sending special forces to the northern Mozambican coastal city of Palma to evacuate several South Africans believed to be still held captive or hostage by the Islamist insurgents who overran the city this week.
But the Mozambican authorities – already widely criticized for failing to protect both locals and expatriates – did not work with Pretoria, the Daily Maverick heard. However, it was possible that President Cyril Ramaphosa got the go-ahead with a direct call to his Mozambique counterpart Filipe Nyusi.
An unknown number of South Africans were among the other foreigners and many locals were killed in the four days of fighting in the city in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado. The number of dead, injured or prisoners could not be determined as the insurgents were still in control of Palma on Saturday.
One of the South Africans who died was Adrian Nel, who was shot and killed in a riot ambush Friday afternoon when he and his father and younger brother joined a convoy of 17 vehicles attempting to break out of the besieged Amarula Lodge Insurgents for three days.
His distraught mother Meryl Knox from KwaZulu-Natal said her husband and younger son were extremely traumatized after spending the night in the bush in the car with their dying son.
She was very angry that no one had come to rescue the people trapped at Amarula Lodge. They had been promised a boat would pick them up from the beach on Thursday, and the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) – the South African military company that fought the insurgents with their helicopter gunships – was ready to provide air conditioning for them to drive to put on this day at noon to the beach.
But the expected lifeboats did not arrive. Knox said that finally by late Friday afternoon the expatriates at the hotel – an estimated 180 – who are still surrounded by insurgents and fear for their lives, decided to run away. Security forces said the foreigners made the decision to flee when the DAG helicopters, which had kept the insurgents at bay, withdrew from the combat zone because they ran out of fuel and because night was getting closer.
But the convoy drove into an ambush right outside the hotel gates. Only seven vehicles made it through and a total of seven occupants were shot dead and many injured, according to security sources. Most of the survivors reached the beach where they were picked up by DAG helicopters on Saturday.
Knox said one of the DAG helicopters picked up her husband, younger son and Adrian’s body near the beach on Saturday morning and dropped them off at the heavily fortified Afungi liquefied natural gas facility, which is being built by French energy company Total.
From there they were flown in a company plane to Cabo Delgado’s capital Pemba in the south, from where they were repatriated. She said her husband and sons’ company had built housing in Afungi. Knox said he was very frustrated with the lack of response from the various authorities. She said she had spoken to an official from the South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation since Thursday, who told her that the Mozambican government was not communicating with Pretoria about the situation of South Africans in Palma.
“This whole situation could have been avoided and I cannot believe that there was no international aid either,” she said. “And unfortunately there are still a lot of people missing.” In the absence of official support, the families of those involved had set up a WhatsApp support point to try to identify the victims.
The Mozambican armed forces seemed to have played little role in the fight against the insurgents. While the three light helicopters of the DAG shot at the insurgents or rescued stranded locals or expatriates, the Russian helicopters of the Ukrainian-piloted Mozambican Air Force withdrew from the fighting on Thursday after one of them was shot – albeit not hampered – by gunfire .
An expected convoy of Mozambican troops on Friday also failed to materialize. A force of around 1,100 troops stationed in Afungi had also not joined the battle, sources said, apparently out of fear it could endanger the fortified structure, which had remained unscathed in the battle. Several sources told Daily Maverick that Total also refused to provide the DAG with fuel, so it had to buy its own fuel and refuel from a nearby island – which is the flight time compared to refueling in Pemba, about 230 kilometers south, considerably lengthened. It could not be independently confirmed that Total had refused DAG fuel.
Security forces said the government reinforcements arrived in Afungi on Saturday, but there was suspicion that their role might only be to defend the gas facilities. Total withdrew from Afungi in December due to insurgent attacks near the plant and had only announced his return on Wednesday – ironically, because the government had created a safe zone with a radius of 25 kilometers around Afungi, which also included Palma.
A security source said it was crucial that Mozambican forces not only defend Afungi but retake Palma as gas companies like Total would find it unacceptable to operate with an insurgent city on their doorstep.
South African High Commissioner for Mozambique, Siphiwe Nyanda, told Daily Maverick on Saturday afternoon that he did not yet know how many South Africans had been killed, wounded or captured.
“We have very little information from the Mozambican authorities. We can only say that it is a fluid situation. The violence is sporadic and continues there. It’s very unstable. “
Nyanda added that the High Commission had received requests from South Africans for return but would require permission from Mozambicans. He added that he was waiting for a call from the UK High Commissioner in Maputo as the British were also considering repatriating some of their nationals.
However, security sources said Mozambican authorities refused to allow a South African mission sent to Maputo to examine the possibility of a rescue mission to travel north to Cabo Delgado to fully assess the requirements of a rescue operation – which almost certainly the case would require the use of special forces.
Security forces said DAG helicopters flew all Saturday to track down survivors. Meanwhile, The insurgents destroyed around two thirds of the infrastructure in Palma on Friday evening by setting fire to the buildings, including the Amarula Hotel.
They said the insurgents also tried to break into the nearby Bonatti Hotel, which is believed to have been hiding more than 20 expatriates. It was unclear whether the insurgents had taken the hotel and what had happened to the residents.
There were unconfirmed reports that some expatriates had been taken hostage.
The insurgents used to use explosives to break into the Standard, Millennium BIM and BCI banks and health clinic in the city. They also destroyed the police station, military barracks and other government buildings. DM