French supermajor Total has suspended work at its liquefied natural gas construction site in northern Mozambique and is evacuating workers amid reports that Islamist insurgents have taken control of the key nearby settlement of Palma, where villagers, refugees and workers were killed.
These apparently well-co-ordinated attacks began on 24 March, just hours after Total and the government agreed to a cautious and gradual return to work at the $20 billion Mozambique LNG project, three months after an evacuation triggered by the insurgents’ first assault on Palma.
The attacks also raise questions about future security in the greater Palma area, with one analyst asking why Mozambique’s government failed to act on intelligence that an assault was imminent.
In a statement emailed to Upstream, Total said "there are no victims among the staff employed on the site of the project in Afungi" and that it has decided to reduce to "a strict minimum level" the workforce at the site.
"Total’s absolute priority is to ensure the safety and security of the people who work on the project."
The company added that remobilisation of the project that was envisaged at the beginning of the week "is ... now suspended".
"Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area," said the statement, stressing that it is "monitoring very closely the situation, in conjunction with the authorities and the local teams".
The supermajor expressed "its sympathy and support to the people of Palma, to the relatives of the victims and those affected by the tragic events of the past days".
ACLED analyst Jasmine Opperman said: “This is not a surprise attack. There had been early warnings that Palma was going to be targeted three days (before the attack).”
She claimed that the information was passed on to foreign embassies and the Mozambican government, but the warnings were “ignored".
Speaking on South Africa’s ENCA news channel, she pointed out that 60,000 locals living in the area — as well as expatriate workers — fled the assault with many hiding in the bush or near beaches.
Opperman — who has worked in the intelligence community for decades — said the insurgents succeeded in occupying Palma, just as they did to the south, last year, in Mocimboa da Praia port.
Asked why the Southern African Development Community had not taken action despite years of talks, she described it as “a dinosaur organisation” that only “looks after certain parties’ interests” and has neither the military nor financial capacity to stem the Cabo Delgado insurgency.
Opperman believes only the European Union, US or United Nations have the ability to help resolve the situation, but warned that direct intervention over many years will only happen if Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi approves it.
She said Nyusi’s intransigence on this matter poses “a risk to the region and not just Cabo Delgado".
A report carried by Pinnacle News on Saturday said about 180 people — including expatriate gas workers, who were trapped for three days in the Amarula Palma hotel — were evacuated, but that some died in an ambush after they left.
A convoy of vehicles sent to rescue those who had taken refuge in the hotel was reportedly ambushed.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), stated: “Al-Shabaab fired on civilians in their homes and on the streets in Palma as they tried to flee for their lives.
"Mozambican authorities should move swiftly to protect civilians and bring all those responsible for abuses to account.”
HRW spoke by phone to seven witnesses to the violence in Palma before telephone lines went down on 24 March.
Separately, HRW and other groups have documented alleged abuses by government security forces and mercenary group Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) — which has been assisting Mozambican forces in Cabo Delgado province — during operations against Al-Shabaab, including excessive use of force, killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees.
Zitamar News reported on Tuesday — the day before the Palma attack — that South Africa’s DAG was due to pull out of Cabo Delgado next month.
Local and international news agencies said the government has revealed little about the attack — apart from a perfunctory confirmation on Thursday — while a lack of mobile telecommunications made it difficult to establish what was going on in Palma.
African Century, a local company that owns real estate in Palma, stated that its team of 19 of its workers and four customers “were successfully rescued on 27 March in the morning under heavy fire” and that “efforts continue to locate the remaining members of our team".
The company said Palma has been without communications since the beginning of the attacks.
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