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Palma district living in fear despite strong military presence

Attacks in Palma district are leaving the population fearful, though the LNG project seems well defended

The death toll from the attack between Palma and Pundanhar on the night of 11-12 September may have been as high as 30, according to local sources contacted by Zitamar — and it is having broad ramifications on the town of Palma where people are increasingly fearful.

A convoy of three vehicles — two open flat-bed trucks transporting people, and one jeep — were ambushed on the road that leads west from Palma town, through Pundanhar into the neighbouring district of Nangade, and from there to Mueda. Until the attack, it had been the one remaining safe route to Palma by road from elsewhere in Mozambique.

Early reports put the number of casualties in single figures, but when a trader based in Palma  and a number of motorcycle taxi drivers went to visit the scene, they found between 20 and 30 decapitated corpses in the road. Lusa reported in an article on 20 September that 24 bodies had been found.

The increasing insecurity in and around the town is causing Bangladeshi traders to shut up shop there and leave, particularly as one of the dead was a Bangladeshi trader, said one source in Palma who spoke to Zitamar News on condition of anonymity. The source said on Saturday, 19 September, that no new shipment of basic goods had reached Palma for a week, since the Pundanhar road is now seen as impassable, and no boats had arrived from Pemba.

Palma has up to now been a relatively safe haven, for people forced out of the neighbouring district of Mocímboa da Praia in particular. But one refugee from Mocímboa told Zitamar more and more people are now preparing to leave Palma, as fear there grows. A “very early” curfew is enforced, Aruna Faque said — with people not even daring to leave their houses to use their bathrooms. Even speaking on the telephone at night “is very dangerous,” she said.

Another source in Palma told Zitamar that a group of refugees from Mocímboa da Praia had to leave the 16 de Julho primary school they were staying in, as it was too close to the police station. They were forced to move to the much smaller Boa Viagem school, where not all of them fit — leading to some of their number having to beg for shelter from other residents of Palma.

More attacks

Another attack happened in Palma district on 17 September, when two men working in fields near the village of Kiwiya were decapitated. Locals believe they were killed by insurgents. A resident of Palma, who told Zitamar of the event, said most of the district does not feel safe, despite a large contingent of defence and security forces (FDS) there, because most of those forces are deployed to protect the LNG project on the Afungi peninsula.

Approximately 90 members of the FDS have also been posted to the island of Vamizi, one Palma resident told Zitamar, after two attacks on that island on 7 and 11 September. The source’s brother fled the island to join him on the mainland after the attacks — but said the FDS are trying to prevent people from leaving. Their presence on the island is partly to deter any attack on the mainland from the sea, the source said. Vamizi island is strategically located on the southern maritime approach to Palma and Afungi peninsula.

As well as being home to the local community, Vamizi is the location of a luxury tourism development. Henry Pitman, an investor in the Vamizi Lodge, told Zitamar last week that the attack on 11 September seemed to have been carried out by seven insurgents, who burned around 30 houses in the island’s main village, as well as destroying parts of the lodge.

Two days after the attack, “with the help of the police we were able to get back onto the island and assess the damage,” Pitman said. “The police have done an incredible job helping us to regain control of the island — they have been immensely helpful. So we’re now back in control of the island, but fearful of what happens next.”

This article was produced by Zitamar and Mediafax under the Cabo Ligado project, in collaboration with ACLED and with support from Crisis Group. The contents of the article are the sole responsibility of Zitamar News.