SADC Mozambique force bolstered by Lesotho as Rwandans retake key port

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Lesotho has become the latest nation to contribute troops to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission in Mozambique, which was formally launched on Monday as Rwandan and Mozambican forces retook strategic towns from Islamist insurgents.

On Sunday 8 August, a Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Contingent Advanced Team to Mozambique left for Mozambique’s insurgency-hit Cabo Delgado province. It comprises 12 soldiers, according to LDF Public Affairs Officer Captain Sakeng Lekola, and will be followed by another 113 LDF members, who will be transported by an Angolan aircraft.

Angola announced last month it was deploying 20 officers and a transport aircraft to Cabo Delgado as part of the SADC mission. It appears Angola is assisting with airlift duties – an Angolan Ilyushin Il-76 transport was seen in Botswana to airlift military cargo meant for the Botswana Defence Force. An Angolan Il-76 was also spotted at Air Force Base Waterkloof outside Pretoria over the weekend, indicating Angola could also be assisting the South African contingent with logistics.

LDF Commander Lieutenant General Letsoela earlier said that the LDF Advanced Party will focus on peace enforcement in Mozambique.

Speaking during the inspection of the contingent team on Friday, Lesotho’s Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro said as an SADC member, Lesotho will join other SADC states in Mozambique to assist in combating terrorism and acts of violent extremism in Cabo Delgado.

The contingent advanced party is expected to stay in Mozambique for a period of three months, news agency LENA reports.

On Monday 9 August, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi launched the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) at an event in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado province.

“We reaffirm our joint commitment to fight against violent extremism together with the Rwandan forces,” said Nyusi, alluding to Rwandan forces recapturing Awasse and Mocimboa da Praia towns from the insurgents, just weeks after 1 000 Rwandan troops arrived in Mozambique under a bilateral agreement (Rwanda is not an SADC member).

“The control of Mocimboa da Praia town and the gradual return of movement between Palma and Mocimboa da Praia is the product of the bravery and concerted effort of the forces with the aim of quickly returning stability to the region,” said Nyusi.

The SADC’s Standby Force in Mozambique includes troops from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania. Botswana in July said it was sending nearly 300 troops to Mozambique while South Africa would send up to 1 495. Zimbabwe will send trainers from its military. It is not clear what Tanzania’s contribution will be – so far only a Tanzanian transport aircraft has been spotted in Mozambique.

During the SAMIM launch on Monday, force commander Major General Xolani Mankayi, of the South African National Defence Force, said the mission would do everything possible to restore peace in the area.

“The SADC region state as described above is (to) facilitate the creation of a secure environment, to ensure that the state authority is in full control of the Cabo Delgado affected areas, and normal lives can resume,” Mankayi said.

Rwandans draw first blood in Mozambique

The Rwanda Defence Force on Sunday announced that the port city Mocimboa da Praia, a major stronghold of the insurgency for more than two years, had been captured by Rwandan and Mozambican security forces. The city also holds the district headquarters and airport.

Reports in South Africa have it the assault on Mocímboa da Praia started on Friday with advances on two landward fronts. The recapture adds to a growing list of retaken towns and villages.

Mozambique’s northern-most province of Cabo Delgado, which has gas developments worth some $60 billion, has since 2017 harboured an Islamist insurgency.

Since last year, the unrest has escalated as insurgents, linked to Islamic State, seized entire towns, including the strategically important Mocimboa da Praia.

Rwandan defence forces spokesman Ronald Rwivanga told Reuters the insurgents, who have fled to nearby forests, were greatly weakened by losing Mocimboa da Praia. They have held it for nearly a year, and it was a stronghold for their supplies.

“It was a critical port for their survival. Losing it is going to be a significant blow to their ability to maintain the insurgency,” Rwivanga said, adding the army would remain in the recaptured areas until stability returns.

He said there had been heavy fighting. “We are just waiting for the final count but generally speaking the enemy had many casualties,” he said.

Colonel Omar Saranga, Mozambican Ministry of Defence spokesman, told a news conference the forces took control of public and private infrastructure, including government buildings, the port, airport, hospital, markets and catering establishments.

He said operations continued to consolidate control over critical areas, including an area where a water treatment facility is situated.

The army has also regained control of Awasse – a small but also strategic settlement near Mocimboa da Praia.

Almost 800 000 people have been displaced in Cabo Delgado and the fighting has brought a $20 billion natural gas project led by oil giant Total to a halt.

Security analyst Jasmine Opperman believes that insurgents will refrain from direct combat in large numbers as SADC forces deploy. “Only when foreign forces start gaining similar successes in ‘off the radar’ areas, we can start celebrating an insurgency losing momentum. Let us not forget the broader complexities, i.e. humanitarian crisis, and a ‘forgotten Cabo Delgado’ legacy that are of equal importance. Neglect these and the insurgency will be awaiting an opportune time to resurface.”

She noted that a final victory goes beyond the obvious targets of access roads, demolished towns, and soldiers roaming freely. “Insurgents have fallen back, split into smaller groups, and seemingly avoiding clashes. Are we about to enter a new phase in the nature and presence of the insurgency?”

Experts have cautioned that reclaiming strongholds like Mocimboa de Praia was the easier aspect of the war as Al Sunnah militants are unlikely to try and match state-aligned forces in conventional warfare.

Darren Olivier, defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, said the Rwandan/Mozambican military focus has been on short-term wins to re-open crucial towns and routes.

“Clearing insurgents out from Mocimboa de Praia, Palma, key infrastructure spots, and various strongholds is a good first start, and will help with morale. But it’s not victory, not against an insurgency that’s accustomed to falling back and preserving strength any time it’s challenged.

“Time will tell whether the Mozambican authorities understand this, and provide the resources and socioeconomic reforms for a long-term dissolution of the insurgency, or whether they prematurely declare victory once the main oil and gas areas seem secure, letting ASWJ regroup.”