The attack on Palma on Wednesday 24 March continues to reverberate around the world, making headlines on most international news outlets. As is usually the case with conflicts in Africa, the killing of large numbers of local fishermen and subsistence farmers has raised little public outrage to date. However, the killing of foreign (white) nationals has catapulted the war in Cabo Delgado into the global media spotlight.

Reliable news has been difficult to come by. All telecommunications networks are still down. There have been reports of numerous bodies on the streets and beaches of Palma. According to some sources, almost a third of the town of 75 000 inhabitants has been razed to the ground. On Sunday Total evacuated personnel by boat to Pemba – see picture left. The boats arriving in Pemba on Sunday carried both locals and foreigners, including employees from the gas projects, an aid official and diplomat said. One boat was carrying around 1 300 people, said the diplomat.

Almost without exception, mainstream media has perpetuated the narrative of Jihad. The BBC described it as an “Islamist terror attack”. South African media have been reporting on “innocent South African civilians” being killed, and demanding that the South African government intervenes. The Mozambican government has confirmed the death of seven South Africans, and estimate that another 45 are still trapped in Palma, in the Amarula Hotel, where most expatriates have sought shelter. On Friday an escape was launched – 17 trucks left the Hotel in convoy, only to be ambushed just outside the town. Only 7 trucks made it back – the remaining 10 haven’t been seen or heard of since.

But how “innocent” are these “civilians” really? Most are mercenaries, who worked for the three South African “Private Security Contractors” – Panzer, Paramount and DAG, whose contract with the Mozambique government expires on 6 April. As we have reported previously, the Amnesty International report published earlier this month documents extensive gross violations of human rights by Private Security Contractors. Furthermore, the Chairperson of the South African Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for International Relations has confirmed that the PSC’s are acting in violation of South Africa’s Prohibition of Mercenary Activities Act.

Many Mozambicans in Cabo Delgado do not endorse the “religious war” narrative. A leading Mozambican political commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “These are surgical attacks designed to put Total and its employees in an uproar, and for the government to have more reason to hire more mercenary companies and give Americans more green light to go big on the ground.” There were widespread fears that the arrival of US Marines marked a turning point and dangerous escalation in the war. The attack on Palma took place less than two weeks after their arrival. With DAG’s contract expiring on 6 April, there have been many reports from local sources of Ukrainian mercenaries who have moved in to take their place, and who are now flying helicopters.

The attack on Palma has raised questions amongst the local civilian population. It comes barely weeks after TOTAL announced that the Mozambican government had agreed to a 25 km “buffer zone” around its installation at Afungi. Several locals feel that the attack is part of a coordinated campaign to drive local communities further away, to enforce the 25 km buffer zone. As can be seen on the map to the right, the town of Palma is less than 10 km from the Total gas project.
Of particular interest are reports that appeared on on 28 March – at least 12 South African citizens were part of the insurgent group that attacked Palma on 24 March. There were reports coming from Palma of white people who were seen to be part of the insurgents’ forces. South African intelligence sources have since confirmed the information.



The picture below shows insurgents gathering in Mocimboa da Praia, after the attack:


The South African Air Force has executed a rescue operation and repatriated six South Africans who were stranded in Palma, as well as the body of one deceased, Adrian Nel. According to Clayton Monyela, spokesperson of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, “the SAAF plane flew from Mozambique to KwaZulu-Natal, and thereafter to Gauteng. This follows the successful evacuation of six more SA nationals and the repatriation of the mortal remains of the SA man who perished in the attacks.”
Meanwhile, DAG- whose contract to provide military support to the Mozambican government is meant to expire soon, on the 6th April 2021- has become a lifeline for many evacuees. Max Dyck says they have managed to rescue 120 people over the weekend from the fighting, with the situation remaining extremely volatile. They have been focusing on tourists and business people who are stuck in locations such as Palma town, lodges and business compounds. The shortage of fuel is becoming a concern however, with there being only so much they can do with the little fuel they have access to. This of course means that some people will not be rescued, and will compromise DAG ability to operate in its capacity of aiding the national armed forces.

Total Mozambique has now made the decision, contrary to its original position, to suspend operations in Palma at its $20 Billion offshore natural gas project. In a statement released by Total, the company says it was monitoring the situation carefully based on information received from the authorities and local teams. “Total expresses its sympathy and support to the people of Palma, to the relatives of the victims and those affected by the tragic events pf the past days. There are no victims among the staff employed on the site of the project in Afungi. Total has decided to reduce to a strict minimum level the workforce on the Afungi site. Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area.”

Following reports and evidence of widespread violence, Portugal has decided to send military assistance to its erstwhile colony, to aid in the fight against insurgents. “The mission is in the final planning phase and, therefore, in the coming weeks, we expect to have support on the ground, in Mozambique, about 60 Portuguese military personnel, experienced, competent, knowledgeable, who support Mozambique in the formation of special forces,” said Augusto Santos Silva, Portuguese foreign affairs minister. This will mean that Mozambique will find itself in a position of having military intervention assistance from the USA and Portugal, and South Africa’s Air Force flying rescue missions to evacuate south Africans, as well as private military contractors who are also assisting the Mozambican national army.

Regional Governments Silent On Palma Attack

There has yet to be official communication from any governmental or regional stakeholder on the situation in Mozambique. The government of Mozambique is silent, as well as the governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Tanzania and Malawi. This same silence is continuing in the lack of communication from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU). NGO’s are sounding the alarm on the lack of public communication by governments and stakeholders, indicating that it is too late for them to say anything to change the direction of the crisis, and the longer they stay silent and defer to Maputo, the worse it will get, not only for the people of Mozambique, but also for the whole region. Says Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch, Director, and Southern Africa, “The time is actually overdue for the international community to mobilize for this. And also, unfortunately, the regional community, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union have not prioritized this crisis. It is escalating. The attacks are intensifying, becoming more sophisticated. And indeed, there is now need for the international community to come together to ensure that this is brought to an end. Otherwise, there is a huge risk that it could spread to other parts of southern Africa very quickly.”

President Nyus Dismisses Palma Attack As Not Serious

It took seven days for the Mozambican Head of State, Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, to react to the invasion of Palma. In an intervention of just 1:00 minutes, during his speech at the inauguration of the District Delegation of the INSS (National Institute of Social Security) in the district of Matutuine, Maputo province, Nyusi de-dramatized the situation, considering the attack “no bigger” and that its media coverage is due to the fact that it took place in the peripheral area of the Natural Gas Liquefaction project.
According to the Head of State, Mozambicans cannot lose focus and much less get in the way, as this is the main objective of the internal and external enemies that the Mozambican state has. He appealed to all Mozambicans to embrace and move forward in the fight against terrorism.

“Everyone knows that on the 24th [March], almost a week ago, there was another [terrorist] attack. This time in Palma. It was not the biggest of the many we had. But, it has that impact of having been on the periphery of the projects underway in that province. Our appeal is simple: don’t lose focus, don’t get in the way. We are going to approach the enemy as we have been approaching. So, we have to focus, embrace and move forward. And we have been following the work that young people on the ground are doing, ”said Filipe Nyusi, at the end of his speech, delivered on Wednesday morning.

Concern Over Unaccompanied Displaced Children

Save the Children issued the following statement on 30 March, highlighting the plight of unaccompanied displaced children:

“Unaccompanied children have started to arrive in the coastal town of Pemba in northern Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, following last week’s brutal attacks by insurgents on Palma and surrounding areas, Save the Children said today. In the past few days, an estimated 3,100 people have fled Palma to the sea or to the bush, with an unknown number now in Pemba.

The agency has deployed a team of child protection and water and sanitation experts to Pemba port and airport, to support arrivals fleeing the recent violence. The organisation is especially looking out for unaccompanied children, who are travelling without family or the company of an adult.

At 9 am on 28 March, the team saw a small boat with four people on board, including a 12-year-old boy, Amimo*, who was visibly scared and barefoot. Amimo told the team that he became separated from his family when his village was attacked on Wednesday, 24 March.

After providing him with food and safety, Amimo told the team:

“I was playing with my friends near my house. When the attacks started, I ran to my house and found my mother and brothers. I told my family to run away, but they said to wait. I didn’t want to wait, so I ran to the beach because that is near my house. When I arrived at the beach, I found a boat carrying people. [It] was far from the shore, so I had to swim to the boat. When I got there, I was rescued and we left towards Pemba.”

The exact number of casualties after the recent violence in Palma, a town of about 75,000 people in Cabo Delgado province, is unclear. Many are still unaccounted for. Earlier this month, Save the Children heard from displaced families that children as young as 11 were being brutally murdered by insurgent groups.

Chance Briggs, Save the Children’s Country Director in Mozambique, said:

“Children have witnessed scenes of unimaginable and unspeakable horror. We cannot begin to imagine how they must be feeling, or the fear in their parent’s hearts. Separated children are particularly vulnerable and our teams are doing all they can to identify them and reunify them with their families as quickly as possible. I am incredibly proud of their commitment to ensuring no child is overlooked in this nightmare scenario. This is a terrible and horrific situation for children, for parents, for the community and for all the people in Cabo Delgado.”

“We are calling on the international community to release funds to support these children. They need urgent support, both to meet their basic needs – food, shelter, medical care – and to help them recover mentally from these attacks. This means psychosocial support by trained counsellors, and child protection case management for children who don’t know where their parents are.”

“Critically, all parties to this conflict must ensure that children are never targets. They must respect international humanitarian and human rights laws and take all necessary actions to minimise civilian harm, including ending indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against children.”

Over 670,000 people are now displaced inside Mozambique due to the conflict in Cabo Delgado – almost seven times the number reported a year ago. At least 2,658 people have died in the conflict, including 1,341 civilians, although this number is likely to be higher after last week’s violence. The situation has seriously deteriorated over the past 12 months, with the escalation of attacks on villages and district capital towns. Cabo Delgado is also still reeling from consecutive climatic shocks, including 2019’s Cyclone Kenneth, the strongest cyclone to hit the northern part of Mozambique, and massive floods in early 2020.”

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