‘They are attacking my base’

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“We need reinforcement, urgently. They’re coming to our base. We can hear the gunshots. They are here at the base.”

These were the panicked words from a Mozambican soldier under attack by insurgents on Friday in the town of Macomia, where one of the most ferocious and well-coordinated attacks in many months took place.

 

Insurgents, emboldened by the ongoing withdrawal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), on 10 May launched a well-planned attack on Macomia from four different directions. Local sources said Mozambican military (FADM) and police bases were badly hit.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has a small base in Macomia, but had mostly withdrawn to Pemba some 130 km away ahead of leaving the country by July, when SAMIM’s mandate concludes.

Amid the surprise attack, South African reinforcements were urgently dispatched from Pemba to help fight back the hundred or more insurgents raiding the town. On their way, a convoy of four South African armoured vehicles was ambushed.

Improvised explosive devices were detonated as Casspir armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were driving through the kill zone, and two were knocked out. Forged by the Border War in Angola and South West Africa, the Casspir was designed to withstand exactly this type of attack, and none of the soldiers were injured.

“Contact, contact, convoy is under attack. About 20 kays outside Macomia,” one of the soldiers involved in the ambush told his headquarters.

 

In a calm and measured tone, he explained the dire situation. “We are still struggling to get the vehicles turned around…we are currently still on the ambush position. We are moving back to the south, approximately 100-200 metres. [We’ll] find a safe spot and then we’ll be making contact. There are no fires for now…we are trying to move out of this area. Standby for me.”

 

For three and a half hours, South African soldiers fought off waves of insurgents, and were running low on ammunition – down to five magazines for 17 soldiers at one point.

The surviving vehicles formed a laager and kept the insurgents at bay while waiting for reinforcements and fresh ammunition to be flown in from Pemba.

It appears that Rwandan Defence Force soldiers based at Mocimboa da Praia northeast of Macomia were also stopped in their tracks by a heavily armed group of insurgents, while trying to get to the besieged town.

For the SANDF soldiers, relief eventually came in the form of a South African Air Force Oryx helicopter – ‘Giant’ – carrying four Special Forces soldiers and extra ammunition.

With the sound of rotor blades spinning in the background, the South African soldier confirmed to headquarters: “Positive, aircraft on ground. Aircraft on ground. Reinforcements have arrived. Ammunition. Four SF. Ammunition. Four SF reinforcements have arrived. Giant on ground.”

 

One of the soldiers involved in the ambush said his fellow soldiers handled the situation well. The SANDF officially reported no injuries, although one soldier apparently suffered a light wound to his hand.

After their initial 45-minute long attack on Macomia, the insurgents fell back, reorganised and returned an hour later. They held Macomia for a day and then withdrew towards Mucojo, some 60 km northeast of Macomia.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi acknowledged a “terrorist attack” on Macomia, but did not mention SAMIM troops engaging with the insurgents. According to official sources, at least one of the enemy was killed and a leader injured, but no reports of Mozambican military casualties were given.

Piers Pigou, head of the Southern Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said the attack in Macomia “is no surprise, with levels of instability that does not warrant SAMIM’s withdrawal, which most analysts agree is highly premature. This is a huge propaganda victory for Islamic State- Mozambique fighters and a major embarrassment for Maputo and the SADC.”

The attack on Macomia comes as SAMIM prepares for a July withdrawal, after initially deploying in December 2021 to defeat insurgents in Cabo Delgado province. SAMIM contributors Botswana and Lesotho have already departed. Rwandan forces will stay on under a separate bilateral agreement with Mozambique.

Darren Olivier, African Defence Review Director, called the attack “a disaster” and said the withdrawal of SAMIM “is not only premature but has emboldened the insurgency.” SAMIM’s presence was vital for maintaining security.

He praised the SANDF soldiers, who managed to ensure success in spite of being placed “in a dangerous situation without the necessary level of support…Once again we’re depending on tired troops going above and beyond with the limited assets at their disposal to fulfil the missions they’ve been tasked with.”

Olivier maintains that transport and attack helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and surveillance aircraft would make a massive difference to operations in Mozambique, “but almost none are available. Government, and society, have allowed the SANDF’s capabilities to deteriorate too far.”