Mozambican troops regain control of town from militants after fierce battle

MAPUTO. – Mozambique’s military says it has regained full control of the coastal town of Palma, more than a week after it was raided by militant Islamists.

A “significant” number of militants were killed in the counter-offensive, an army spokesman said.

State radio reported that residents who had fled were starting to return – some to homes that were looted.

Dozens of civilians were killed and at least 11,000 displaced after the militants invaded Palma on 24 March.

A South African and British national were among those killed in what was one of the biggest attacks by the militants in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province since they launched an insurgency in 2017.

Communication with the town, which has a population of about 75 000, remains cut. The militants, known locally as al-Shabab, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.

Their assault on Palma forced energy giant Total to suspend its multi-billion dollar natural gas project in Afungi, a short distance from the town.

Total withdrew its staff on Friday, while the United Nations suspended flights to evacuate civilians because of security concerns. Army spokesman Brigadier Chongo Vidigal said the gas plant was secure, and Palma was now “safe” .

“The airfield area was the only one we needed to clear and we did that [on Sunday]. It’s completely safe,” Brig Vidigal was quoted by AFP news agency as saying.

In the first footage from Palma in the aftermath of the attack, state television broadcast images of soldiers putting black plastic sheets over the dead on the streets.

Although some residents were reported to be returning, the streets were mostly deserted. The town’s hospital, commercial banks and the state prosecutor’s office were all destroyed.

Security forces have until now been bolstered by a South African private military company, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), but its contract with the government ends this week. “God help the people,” DAG founder Lionel Dyck told AFP news agency yesterday, adding it was “unlikely” soldiers had fully retaken Palma.

The governor of Cabo Delgado, Valgy Tauabo, visited Palma on Sunday, and promised to help people rebuild their lives.

“We are now moving on to the next stage, one as critical as retaking the town, whereby we will be welcoming the communities who fled to the bush,” Brig Vidigal said.

Thousands of others fled by boat to Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado.

The regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), is due to discuss the insurgency at a meeting later this week, amid fears that it could spread.

There have been calls for the deployment of regional troops, but Mozambique’s government has so far resisted this. Many academics agree with its decision, saying the deployment of a regional force could complicate the situation and some of its troops may even collude with the militants.

Instead, it has called for its army to be given training and resources to fight the militants. An unspecified number of US military instructors are already in Mozambique for this purpose.

Hundreds of people fleeing ongoing hostilities in Palma have been pouring into Pemba, a port city around 250 km (155 miles) to the south already bursting with those displaced by previous rounds of Islamist violence and a deadly cyclone in 2019.

Around 90 percent of those arriving in Pemba are taken in by relatives, while others cram into schools, hotels, makeshift tented camps and a sports stadium, said Francesca Fontanini, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

The violence has displaced nearly 690 000 people since 2017, when the insurgency began, said UNHCR’s Fontanini.

Pemba, a city of just over 200 000 in 2017, had already seen its population swell by almost three-quarters by February, according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, including 7 400 people who arrived in the space of a week in October. – BBC/Reuters.