MAPUTO - Mozambique's government said it is reclaiming territory from Islamic State-affiliated insurgents that besieged the key northern coastal town of Palma, with some of the thousands of civilians who fled now going back to take stock of their losses.
"The population is returning, but they have nothing to eat because the terrorists have looted almost everything," Agostinho Muthisse, a Mozambican military commander, said to a small group of journalists that the government flew in to visit Palma on Sunday.
Militants armed with rocket launchers, rifles and machetes began an assault on Palma - a town of 75,000 in Mozambique's impoverished but resource-rich province of Cabo Delgado - on March 24. That day, the French oil gas company Total had planned to resume work on a nearby liquified natural gas (LNG) project after insecurity forced it to suspend operations in December. By last Friday, the company had withdrawn all its personnel.
The fresh attacks have uprooted more than 9,100 people in the province, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Even before the recent attacks there had been roughly 670,000 internally displaced people since 2017 as a result of the insurgency in northern Mozambique OCHA said.
Dozens of civilians died in the siege, according to the government. Also, "a significant number of terrorists ... were shot down," Commander Chongo Vidigal told state television TVM on Sunday, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency reported Monday. The dead included at least several foreigners, including British and South African nationals.
Vidigal, who led the military operation in Palma, said authorities would provide a more specific tally later.
"Palma is under 100% control by Mozambican authorities," Cabo Delgado Governor Valygi Tualibo told visiting journalists, AFP reported.
But some experts are skeptical of the government's claims about the militants' deaths and about Palma's security - details hard to verify independently because of limited access.
Call for outside help
A growing chorus is calling for Mozambique's government to bring in more reinforcements against the armed militants, who call themselves al-Shabab. Unafiliated with the Somalia-based terrorist group that shares the name, they pledge fealty to the Islamic State.
"The government urgently needs help from the Southern African Development Community and the African Union," Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, wrote last week in an op-ed for News 24.
He encouraged Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, current SADC chairperson, to "tap into regional support to ensure civilian protection against attacks and to restore security in Cabo Delgado."
Mavhinga, who also accused the African Union of being "slow to act" in the Cabo Delgado crisis, recommended that SADC and the AU "consider appointing special envoys to lead stepped-up efforts to protect civilians, "end the abuses by armed groups and government security forces," and ensure accountability.
Amnesty International, in a report in early March, called upon the African Union to get more involved in resolving Cabo Delgado's "massive humanitarian crisis."
SADC already has met several times on the issue.
Separately, several sources in South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's administration told VOA they've been trying to get Maputo's cooperation for a long time, to no avail.
"South Africa is pivotal to at least decreasing the violence," Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, told VOA.
The Maputo government has accepted limited support from outsiders, Louw-Vaudran noted.
"The stumbling block seems to be that Mozambique doesn't want help from the neighbors," Louw-Vaudran said. "... Is it because Mozambique doesn't want to admit that its army is too weak to actually safeguard citizens?"
The Pentagon announced March 15 that a team of U.S. Special Operations Forces had just launched a two-month program to train and support Mozambican marines in fighting violent extremism. Portugal also is training troops to take on the insurgents.
Mozambique also has been paying the Dyck Advisory Group, a South Africa-based private military company, to supply security agents and helicopter gunships to bolster Mozambican forces. These agents been accused of atrocities in Cabo Delgado. Dyck's contract with Mozambique expires Tuesday, DAG founder Lionel Dyck confirmed to AFP.
Willem Els, a former senior South African police and intelligence officer, pointed out the insurgency's broadening threat.
It has drawn in "foreign fighters from especially Tanzania as far as Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, DRC and even South Africa," he told VOA. "So, what started off as a very localized challenge is now a regional challenge."
Eva Renon, a senior analyst with the London-based risk and research firm HIS Markit, anticipates more danger.
"Unless the security situation changes significantly," she wrote in an assessment posted Monday on the company website,"in the next six months insurgents are likely to attempt to capture Pemba," the Cabo Delgado provincial capital.
Renon also wrote that insurgents "will likely target beachfront hotels, government facilities, and the personnel and assets of non-governmental organizations, the Catholic Church, and the United Nations."
The analyst sees other potential hazards. "If insurgents capture Pemba," she wrote, "they are likely to turn their attention west" to areas around the Cabo communities of Montepuez and Balama. "These areas are rich in ruby and graphite deposits, respectively, with the insurgents likely to seek to extort then ultimately control mining operations, with associated risks of kidnap, injury, and death to mining staff and subcontractors."
Most observers agree the long-term solution lies in SADC states, the African Union and the United Nations drawing up a road map to peace, with special emphasis on the development of Cabo Delgado. This would mean less opportunity for the extremists to exploit local grievances.
This report originated in VOA's Africa Division, with Darren Taylor reporting for the English to Africa Service from Johannesburg and Simiao Pongoane for the Portuguese Service from Maputo.