SA resorts under threat as jihadists occupy Mozambique islands


Jihadists in northern Mozambique occupied two small islands in the Indian Ocean last week, threatening tourism and maritime traffic in the region where a multibillion-dollar offshore gas exploration project is being developed, locals said on Friday.

The occupied islands are Mecungo and Vamizi, part of the Quirimbas archipelago which is known as a diving and holiday paradise, and also is home to a number of luxury holiday resorts, many of them involving South African interests. Nearby popular resort islands include Ibo Island and Medjumbe Island.

It is not exactly clear what the situation is regarding the resorts and their safety, as news coming from the region is patchy at best.

According to an employee of Siyabona Africa, a Cape Town-based tour operator offering luxury holiday packages to several Mozambican destinations including Ibo Island Lodge and Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort, they have received absolutely no advisories or reports from the area.

The employee, who spoke on condition of anonimity because she wasn't authorised to comment, said all the lodges have been closed because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions, so no guests could have been on the islands at the time of the takeover.

The company also didn't know what the status of the resorts are and if they would be able to open once the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

"We can only wait and see how the situation develops," she said.

The occupation of the islands came a month after the Islamic State-linked insurgents occupied a strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia, which was used for cargo deliveries for the development of the gas project.

Witnesses told AFP that the militants seized control of the islands of Mecungo and Vamizi on Wednesday night last week.

"They arrived at night in small fishing boats. They removed people from the houses and then torched them," said one man who had fled to Mecungo island from Mocimboa da Praia.

"They didn't hurt anyone, they just gave orders to leave the islands," he said by phone, adding that he had moved further inland to the ruby mining town of Montepuez after sailing to the mainland and then taking a bus ride to Montepuez.

The islands were mostly inhabited by internally displaced people who fled their villages on the mainland where attacks have escalated.

Another witness said that before the houses were burned down, the insurgents held meetings with people and instructed everyone to leave the island.

"They got us together and told us to run away if we want to live. I think everyone left the island," one said asking to not be identified.

Government forces are still battling to retake the Mocimboa da Praia port since it was occupied on August 12.

The militants' attacks in the Cabo Delgado have rendered the road network between the provincial capital Pemba and the gas region in Palma, impassable.

Maritime transport had been the alternative for goods and people.

But French oil giant Total, which is investing $23 billion in the gas exploration project, said it no longer relies on the occupied Mocimboa da Praia port.

"Mozambique LNG is not using Mocimboa da Praia as a logistical hub and has indeed built its own marine facilities," Total said in an emailed response to questions.

Provincial police declined to comment on the islands' occupation.

On Saturday, suspected jihahists ambushed two cargo trucks carrying passengers from Palma to the district of Nangade, near the Tanzanian border.

Two unnamed military sources confirmed the attack, which took place near an army post 40 kilometres from Palma.

"Assistance was provided but at the moment two deaths and many injured are confirmed," said a soldier who witnessed the attack, explaining that one of the trucks crashed into a tree.

A high-ranking officer in Palma said the ambush significantly raised the threat level posed by insurgency.

"The vehicles circulated without military escort because we assumed that the route was safe", he told AFP.

"With this attack we can assume that we are isolated from the rest of the province and the country. Right now the only safe way to get in and out of the Palma is by air."

"We are surrounded and at this moment the defence and security forces have neither the conditions nor the capacity to repel the insurgents from Palma and recover Mocimboa da Praia," confided another military officer based in the town.

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