Official says Palma ‘under control of the state’, after being attacked by ISIL-linked fighters, but experts doubtful.
The town in northern Mozambique that ISIL (ISIS)-linked fighters attacked late last month is now secure after the military killed a significant number of fighters and cleared one final area, an army spokesman and a provincial official said.
Commander Chongo Vidigal, leader of military operations to regain control of Palma, told state television TVM on Monday the area was now “safe”, although he stopped short of declaring that the army had regained complete control.
“The airfield area was the only one we needed to clear and we did that this morning. It’s completely safe,” Vidigal said.
Armindo Ngunga, secretary of state for the Cabo Delgado province, told Reuters news agency on Monday that the town of Palma was “under the control of the state”.
“There was significant loss of human life, infrastructure destroyed. But people are safe now,” Ngunga added.
Fighters on March 24 attacked the coastal town of Palma, near natural gas projects worth $60bn that are meant to transform Mozambique’s economy.
Mozambique’s government says dozens died in the assault, and security sources say clashes continued outside the town as recently as Friday.
Thousands have fled the town of some 75,000 people, according to an early government toll. The United Nations said more than 11,000 civilians fled Palma in recent days.
Reuters has not been able to verify the accounts from Palma independently. Most means of communication with the town were cut off after the attack began.
Footage taken by TVM in Palma showed a soldier covering a body lying in the street and burned buildings.
Vidigal said the facilities of French energy company Total near Palma were being protected, after sources told Reuters on Friday that Total had withdrawn all its staff as the fighters appeared to be approaching.
“The facilities are safe, they are protected,” he said.
A Total spokesman and Mozambique’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.
ISIL-linked fighters have been increasingly active in Cabo Delgado since 2017, although it is unclear whether they have a unified aim.
Aid groups believe the latest attack displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom fled into dense forest or escaped by boat. But the extent of the death and displacement is not yet clear, and many remain unaccounted for.
Survivors have recounted seeing bodies of others who died of hunger or dehydration while trying to escape.
Thousands have poured into Cabo Delgado’s capital Pemba, stretching a city already brimming with people displaced by previous rounds of violence as well as a deadly cyclone in 2019.
Only ‘pockets’ of safety
Several experts have expressed doubts over the authorities’ claims to retaking Palma.
“There might be pockets that are safe but they are definitely not in control,” Willem Els, senior training coordinator at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, told AFP news agency.
“Insurgents are still roaming around,” he cautioned, citing sources on the ground. “The only enclave that is really secure at the moment is the area around Afungi.”
Security forces have been bolstered by a South African private military company, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), but its contract with the government ends this week.
DAG founder Lionel Dyck confirmed their involvement ends on Tuesday.
“God help the people,” he told AFP via WhatsApp on Monday, adding that it was “unlikely” soldiers had retaken Palma.