Zimbabwe army on high alert over Islamist threats from Mozambique

GOVERNMENT has placed the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) on high alert amid threats of insurgency and infiltration along the border with Mozambique where Islamist fighters and opposition Renamo militia have escalated attacks against Mozambican targets.

The Zimbabwe Independent reports that as the security situation deteriorates, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has launched a diplomatic offensive to convince Southern African Development Community (Sadc) leaders to consider a joint military operation to assist the neighbouring country in its battle to contain the twin rebellions which have gathered momentum in the past three years.

The Zimbabwean government has deployed elite troops to assist the Mozambican government with strategies on how to track down the insurgents. The soldiers will also conduct reconnaissance, which includes studying the terrain and assessing enemy strength, Government has confirmed.

Although Islamist insurgency has raged in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province since 2017, the situation deteriorated in the past month as the jihadist groups continue with mass killings. So far, they have killed nearly 1 000 people and displaced tens of thousands. The Mozambican government recently claimed to have killed 129 militants.

The decision by Mnangagwa — who chairs Sadc’s organ on politics, defence and security — to place troops on high alert follows his meeting last week in Mozambique with President Filipe Nyusi over the rapidly deteriorating situation in that country.

Mnangagwa took the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, to the meeting.Jihadist violence is ravaging Mozambique’s oil-rich north, while an armed dissident faction of the opposition Renamo has been making sporadic attacks in the central and eastern regions of the country. Attacks by jihadists have escalated in several districts of Cabo Delgado province in the far north.

Press and security reports indicate that the country has relapsed into a virtual civil war, with Islamist fighters killing 52 civilians during a night raid in Xitaxi Village, Muidumbe district, on April 8.

Mozambican security forces, with the help of mercenaries under the command of former Zimbabwean army colonel Lionel Dyck, a Mnangagwa ally, repelled the militants in Muidumbe town, killing 39 of them.

Dyck’s private security company, Dyke Advisory Group, was hired by Mozambique to assist.

Presidential spokesperson George Charamba, who accompanied Mnangagwa to Mozambique, confirmed the army was on high alert although he dismissed reports that special forces had been secretly deployed in Mozambique.

Charamba said government was mostly worried about the threat posed by the Renamo militia, which has carried out attacks on civilians in central and eastern Mozambique. The militants have disrupted freight on the Mutare-Beira trade corridor which gives Zimbabwe the shortest route to the sea.

Authoritative government and military sources said Nyusi formally requested urgent military back-up from Zimbabwe during the meeting, but Mnangagwa took a cautious approach saying, for now, he would rather help by sending a small band of skilled military trainers who have special skills in tackling insurgency.

Mnangagwa also told Nyusi that he would convene a meeting of the Sadc organ on politics, defence and security.

Official sources told the Independent the government had actually deployed elite troops to conduct reconnaissance along the expansive borderline two weeks ahead of Mnangagwa’s meeting with Nyusi.

“The military has been monitoring the situation there and they got really worried when the Renamo military junta’s leader Mariano Nhongo claimed they were responsible for an attack on a Chinese-owned timber company which left one worker dead in Matarara camp in Manica province. That is when the reality of the threat hit home and, since then, Zimbabwe’s security forces have been on alert,” a source said.

“So when the President went to Maputo last week, President Nyusi requested military back-up, saying his country was literally under siege and was struggling to cope with the situation. However, the President (Mnangagwa) said he needed to first raise the issue at a meeting of Sadc’s organ on defence and security so that if there is any deployment that is going to take place, it will be under the auspices of the regional bloc.

“However, the military had already sent reconnaissance teams to the borderline about two weeks earlier. Their brief is to carefully study the terrain to identify possible areas where terrorists could infiltrate

through and also alert those living in those areas so that they will be able to report any suspicious movements.” Charamba confirmed that Mnangagwa was communicating with the heads of state of Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a view to setting a date for the Troika’s meeting.

“The security issue is not only limited to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It has become a major regional security concern and, as such, the President was of the view that the best way to tackle it was to bring it to the attention of Sadc, bearing in mind that he chairs the organ on defence and security,” Charamba said.

He added that the government got gravely worried after receiving reports that Renamo gunmen were targeting the Beira corridor, which comprises a railway line, road and oil pipeline, making it highly strategic to Zimbabwe’s economy.

Charamba said some Zimbabwean haulage trucks have been attacked in recent weeks.“It was important that we discussed two specific security issues. Firstly, there is the issue of Renamo dissidents operating in Manica province as well as in the central regions.

“The greatest traffic on that trade route is Zimbabwean and some of our trucks have been attacked there. So it is a very strategic trade route which links Zimbabwe to the rest of the world. They thus pose a direct threat to Zimbabwe,” Charamba said.

“The second aspect is the situation in the northern region of Mozambique where Islamic fundamentalists are attacking the state. This is worrisome for the whole of Sadc. Their intention is to redraw the geographical boundaries of the entire region without paying attention to traditional boundaries in the same way that the parent terrorist ISIS (Islamic State) organisation is trying to do in the Middle East.

“Their plans also affect Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and DRC. So after a detailed briefing from President Nyusi, the President’s opinion is that it is a crisis we cannot be indifferent to, which is why he is talking to the heads of state of DRC and Lesotho. The troika meeting is set to take place soon.”

Asked whether or not Mnangagwa is ready to deploy soldiers to Mozambique, Charamba said: “Things haven’t gotten to that yet, but if you are going to use the precedents of other regions, no country is at peace now and this means action will have to be taken. Remember, in Zimbabwe, we have a number of our people who subscribe to that religion and we don’t want them to get radicalised as well. We are monitoring the situation and we have to be careful.”

Zimbabwe National Army spokesman Alphios Makotore declined to comment, saying: “Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (Nick Mangwana) has already spoken on that matter.”

Mangwana had earlier argued that President Mnangagwa has no plans to deploy troops to Mozambique anytime soon.

However, media reports this week suggested that at least 30 elite Zimbabwean troops are currently in Mozambique where they are helping with the training of the country’s military personnel on how to respond to the crisis.

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