SANDF soldiers survive ambush in Mozambique

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South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers still serving with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) were ambushed by insurgents on Friday during an attack on the town of Macomia, but apart from damaged vehicles, reported no casualties.

The SANDF confirmed the attack on Friday morning –  apparently by hundreds of insurgents – but provided no further details. Macomia is located on the N1 national road, which connects insurgency-affected northern districts, such as Muidumbe, Nangade, Mueda, Mocímboa da Praia and Palma.

The SANDF began withdrawing from Mozambique last month and is understood to only have several hundred troops left in the country, and some of these were asked to assist Mozambican government forces repel the insurgents in Macomia, along with Rwandan troops who will remain in Mozambique under a separate bilateral agreement.

Two of five serviceable SANDF Casspir armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were damaged in the ambush against the South African forces, which is believed to have involved at least one improvised explosive device (IED), according to Rapport.

Several sources said SANDF personnel were supported by an Oryx helicopter, which delivered Special Forces and extra ammunition from Pemba, as South African soldiers began running low on ammunition.

The Armed Defence Forces of Mozambique (FADM) in a statement said Friday’s attack lasted around 45 minutes “and the terrorists were promptly repelled by the coordinated action of our forces, which forced the enemy to retreat, towards the interior of the administrative post of Mucojo”.

It added the FADM “captured a terrorist and injured one of the leaders, known as ‘Issa’, who managed to escape, with no registration of deaths or injuries by the Armed Forces. Subsequently, the captured terrorist lost his life from serious injuries”.

However, other sources reported that after initial contact, the insurgents regrouped and came back, only leaving on Saturday, when residents began to return home.

The attack – one of the biggest in some time – comes as SAMIM prepares for a July withdrawal, after initially deploying in December 2021. SAMIM contributors Botswana and Lesotho have already departed.

Darren Olivier, African Defence Review Director, said the insurgent attack on Macomia has made it very clear how important the SAMIM presence there was for maintaining security, and that the withdrawal of SAMIM is not only premature but has emboldened the insurgency.

“But options are now more limited. SAMIM is mostly withdrawn and probably won’t be coming back, given that SADC lacks the budget to maintain both this mission and SAMIDRC simultaneously. It’s something the FADM and RDF (Rwanda Defence Force) have to find a way to resolve now.

“Both SADC’s leadership and the governments of Mozambique and Rwanda need to do some serious reflection and re-evaluation regarding this disaster. All had maintained the pretence that the insurgency was largely defeated even as reports from deployed units warned otherwise.”

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 amd a major embarrassment for Maputo and the SADC.”

South Africa is now focusing on supporting the SADC Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC), which some experts have warned is a mistake as the insurgency in Mozambique poses a more immediate threat to South Africa.

Commenting after Friday’s attack, Olivier stated that once again, SANDF troops have been placed in a dangerous situation without the necessary level of support to ensure success. “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. It’s obviously far from ideal and risky for a force that was already mostly withdrawn to suddenly have to re-enter combat operations against an insurgency like this, especially when they do not have air support for either close air support, air-mobile operations, or aerial ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).”

He warned that the SANDF doesn’t have the capability to adequately support missions like SAMIM. “A few Oryxes for transport and air-mobile operations, a few Rooivalks for close-air support, and Caravans or UAVs with ISR turrets would be making a massive difference, but almost none are available. Government, and society, have allowed the SANDF’s capabilities to deteriorate too far.”

Backsliding in Mozambique raises further concerns about SANDF performance with the SADC Mission in the DRC. Two South African soldiers were killed in a mid-February mortar attack by M23 rebels and three others injured amid reports of a lack of logistic and other support. In recent weeks, chartered Ilyushin Il-76 transports have been moving equipment to the DRC via Upington as the SANDF deployment expands, but it is not clear what equipment is being delivered in support of South African soldiers, although some deliveries apparently include 155 mm howitzers.