The remains of a burned and destroyed home is seen in the recently attacked village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia.
Over the last few months, veteran South African anti-poachers have been battling militants across northern Mozambique with sniper rifles and helicopters.
Multiple sources have told the Telegraph that this small band of elite sharpshooters have helped to turn the tide against an army of militants, who have been waging a shadow war in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province for more than two years.
From October 2017, unidentified militants have launched devastating attacks across northern Mozambique, capturing major towns and committed mass beheading of those who resist them.
The conflict first made international headlines earlier this year when insurgents invaded and briefly occupied Mozambique’s northernmost port, Mocímboa da Praia. Residents were filmed cheering as young militants hoisted black Islamist flags and pulled state symbols off government buildings.
Earlier this year, the desperate Mozambican government in the southern capital, Maputo, recruited the help of Colonel Lionel Dyck, a veteran of the Rhodesian army.
Col. Dyck served in the Zimbabwean army after independence, where he led troops in to central Mozambique to defeat rebels 35-years-ago. He then went on to found a company removing land mines around the world, before moving to South Africa to protect rhinos from poachers.
In early April, Col. Dyck hired a small band of sharpshooters, many of them veterans of Angola’s civil war, and flew into Mozambique’s northern province with a few helicopters. Multiple sources have told the Telegraph that Col Dyck’s band were involved in a crucial battle for the port city of Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado province, on April 10.
As hundreds of militants advanced on the city, Col. Dyck’s helicopters flew in and started shooting at the attackers. Insiders say they ‘shot the shit’ out of the fighters, killing dozens. The fighters had seen little resistance up to that point and fled back into the bush. Col. Dyck told the Telegraph “some one had to do it.”
One international resident of the city for more than a decade told the Telegraph, “We thought it was over for us. We could see [some of the fighting from] across the bay. These guys saved the day. They lost a helicopter, but no one was hurt.”
Col. Dyck’s forces were also involved in another battle around the northern town of Mocomia ten days ago, in which two rebel leaders were killed. The Mozambican army later picked up 78 bodies from around the district.
The identity of the militants is still unclear. It has been widely reported that they are allied to Isil in the Middle East and there have been some videos posted online of them waving the group’s black flag.
However, sources on the ground say these claims may have been overstated. They say the militants are more likely to be bandits and rebels angry at decades of neglect from southern elites.
“The local civilian population has suffered dreadfully at the hands of these insurgents who commit Isis-style beheading and dismemberment on hundreds of peaceful farming peasants,” Col. Dyck told the Telegraph, adding that Mozambique needs to train a special unit to keep the upper hand against future attacks.
Professor Adriano Nuvungo, from the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Maputo-based think tank, said the “youth population had grown enormously in the context of neglect.” He said that many young people with access to the internet had been influenced by events in the Middle East.
Some of the discontent and unrest in northern Mozambique can be traced back to the discovery of one the world’s largest offshore natural gas reserves near border with Tanzania in 2011. One international businessman in Pemba told the Telegraph that the discovery of natural gas and the subsequent development in the region had disrupted local hardwood, ivory and ruby smuggling networks, linked to China.
The region is also well known for major heroin trafficking routes from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drugs land in the north and before being smuggled down into the richer south and then onto South Africa and beyond.
- Additional reporting by Will Brown