Maputo - The outbreak of guerrilla fighting in central Mozambique and a spate of kidnappings in Maputo have prompted an exodus of foreigners amid diplomatic warnings of a tense situation where people should exercise “extreme caution”.
A Sunday Tribune visit to the country this week revealed how jittery locals and foreigners were after two weeks of sporadic clashes between Renamo rebels and government military forces in the northern Sofala and Nampula provinces.
The fighting has brought an end to nearly 20 years of peace and some locals believe Mozambique is on the brink of civil war, which has many KwaZulu-Natal businessmen with interests in the country worried.
The South African government expressed concern about Renamo’s return to the bush war and issued a strong condemnation of the rebel group after a Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Pretoria this week involving President Jacob Zuma and his regional counterparts.
Fears of war have coincided with a spate of kidnappings targeting expatriates in Maputo, compounding the sense of alarm.
More than 30 people, foreign and local, have been abducted this year alone and nearly R270 million in ransom money has been paid.
And Renamo’s activities have prompted foreign embassies to issue urgent travel advisories.
Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has evacuated the families of its workers posted in northern Mozambique as fighting in the mineral-rich area escalated.
It is understood that other mining groups, including Vale and Jindal and India Coal, have consulted security teams to protect their property and staff.
Rio Tinto spokesman David Outhwaite confirmed the evacuation: “Rio Tinto Coal Mozambique has made arrangements for the dependant family of members of its foreign employees to return home temporarily. The safety of employees and their families is the number one priority and we will monitor the situation.”
Mozal’s Danie Murray said their operation, an aluminium smelter outside Maputo, was 1 200km south of the violence, but “we are aware of the situation and continue to monitor events to ensure the continued safety of our people”.
It is understood that mining companies have ceased all road travel between sites, unless accompanied by a military escort.
According to a military intelligence source who could not be named, Vodacom halted maintenance on its base stations in the north of the country after a team with a military escort was attacked.
David Chamusse, editor-in-chief of Zambeze, one of Mozambique’s largest newspapers, said the country was close to “boiling point”.
“We are on a knife-edge and there is no telling how things will change in the days to come. Society has been polarised again, with citizens having to choose sides.
“In Sofala pro-vince, where all the fighting has taken place, the rebels have made attempts to cross the river and come south towards the capital. It might be business as usual in Maputo for now, but that might not always be the case,” he said.
He said sporadic fighting stymied plans to resolve the conflict through negotiation.
Chamusse said conflict was re-ignited when government forces raided the home of Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama.
“He and his upper echelon remain in hiding, which means that those further down the command structure are ordering attacks. If their leader is in hiding, who is there to negotiate with?
“There is potential for bloody guerrilla warfare and that is the tactic of Renamo: small groups of men moving across the country towards the urban centres,” Chamusse said.
In a backpackers’ lodge in Maputo, Francois le Roux of Nelspruit told how violence in Sofala forced him and his friends to flee Beira this week.
“The fighting had been getting worse and we found out that a bus was fired on, so we decided to move south. We had another fishing trip planned, but with all this going on I won’t go back.”
Le Roux was among a handful of South Africans who had horror stories from Mozambique this week.
But hoteliers in Maputo appeared unmoved by the violence.
Gesturing to his happy guests sipping cocktails on the deck, one said: “Look by the pool, it’s a beautiful day, nothing’s wrong here.”
Mize Hamilton, booking agent for Barra Resorts, a scuba diving spot, said it was too early for panic about the Christmas season.
“We are running at 100 percent occupancy for Christmas and we have not had any cancellations or worried calls. Of course the election is coming up, and no one can predict the outcome of that.”
A former Mozambican and high-profile Durban socialite who asked not to be named told the Sunday Tribune: “It is very frightening. I have family there and they are getting ready to run.
“You cannot move out of Beira at the moment without police protection, and a child of 13 had his throat cut a few days ago when his father could not pay the ransom the kidnappers asked for.
“Everyone is too terrified to talk to the media, so these stories are not being told. Forty children I know of have already been taken out of school and sent to Portugal and South Africa. We are afraid.”
Deolinda Simoes, 90, said on Saturday from her Mozambican home that although the danger was still confined to outlying areas, women had been warned not to walk around town after dark.
“We are telling our families in South Africa not to come for Christmas because we don’t know how the violence will escalate,” she said on Saturday.
Repeated attempts to get comment from the Mozambican government failed.
Azhar Jammine, chief economist at Econometrix, said: “I would think that the country is on the brink of real trouble and if Rio Tinto has repatriated families of workers… civil war highlights the risk of investing in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Mozambique is seen as a rising star economically on the continent. Civil war would have a knock-on effect that would be felt by all SADC nations.”
Jammine said South Africa’s economy would not escape the impact of conflict in Mozambique. “A situation like this would dampen growth and manufacturing would take a hit.”
South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairman Neeran Rau described the situation as worrying.
He said South African businesses in Mozambique would probably retreat to Maputo if conflict continued.
Rau said specific projects would be compromised by |civil war. “Cahora Bassa is a shared electricity generation scheme between South Africa and Mozambique and because of the instability of the power grid, compromising this project would bring high risks.”
According to DefenceWeb, the Mozambican army has been neither strong nor cohesive since the end of the civil war. With a fighting strength of 13 000 soldiers, it is plagued by ill-discipline.
Renamo’s forces are scattered across dense bush in the Gorongosa region of Sofala.
Military analyst Helmoed-Romer Heitman said Renamo had a limited fighting capability, but they were easily capable of disrupting order and discouraging investment in Mozambique.
“They would use instability to force the government to give them a share of the offshore gas and more of a say in the government,” he said.
Marvin Lawack, the spokesman for the South African High Commission in Mozambique, said: “We have received numerous requests for guidance from travellers who have booked holidays in the country.
“Most people will be in the southern region, which is essentially outside the scope of where the fighting is taking place. We have advised anyone travelling in Sofala or Nampula to exercise extreme caution.” – Additional reporting by Peter Fabricius, Nabeelah Shaikh and Vivian Attwood