As Militants Seize Mozambique Gas Hub, a Dash for Safety Turns Deadly

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As gunshots rang out across a port town in northeastern Mozambique on Friday afternoon, nearly 200 people sheltering inside the Amarula Palma hotel confronted a devastating reality: The armed insurgents outside the hotel’s doors had all but taken control of the town and there was no one coming to save them any time soon.

For two days, hundreds of insurgents in the gas-rich region had been laying siege to the coastal town of Palma, firing indiscriminately at civilians, hunting down government officials and setting buildings ablaze as security forces tried in vain to repel them.

The violence sent thousands of people fleeing, with some rushing to the beach, where a ragtag fleet of cargo ships, tugboats and fishing vessels was ferrying people to safety.

But at the hotel, with daylight hours dwindling, the local residents and foreign gas workers who remained faced an impossible choice: Either wait inside, defenseless, for a promised evacuation in the morning, or try to make it to the beach.

campaign of violence the militants have unleashed. Insurgents have beheaded civilians in summary executions and left homes, schools and health centers destroyed.

Many analysts say that the insurgency is a home grown-crisis and that the group only maintains loose ties to the Islamic State. Still, the jihadist rallying cry has provided a banner under which mostly impoverished people angry about an array of local grievances can coalesce. It has also inspired the use of the international terrorist network’s brutal tactics.

Few journalists and human rights investigators have been able to report firsthand on the conflict from Mozambique, where government forces and private security contractors have also been implicated in abuses against civilians. And as the attack on Palma unfolded last week, phone lines and other communications in the town were cut by insurgents.

Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the department of International Development at the London School of Economics who is an expert on Mozambique.

The Mozambique government guaranteed Total that it would secure the development, and Total said it would not hire private security companies like the Dyck Advisory Group, which was recently implicated in a report by Amnesty International of killing civilians.

“This attack is arguably the most significant yet, given that foreigners also came under the cross hairs of insurgents and because Palma is the gateway to the gas megaprojects,” said Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, who recently visited Mozambique. “It will lead to more pressure on Mozambique for hard military responses, perhaps at the expense of other policies that should still be on the table.”

Earlier this month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity after the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province in 2019.

engulfed in sporadic fighting between the militants and national security forces as helicopters operated by the South African private contractors flew overhead.

By Friday morning the usually serene Amarula Palma Hotel, a sprawling compound with an outdoor bar and thatched-roof awnings that caters to foreign workers from countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom, had transformed into a chaotic epicenter of the crisis. By midday insurgents had surrounded the hotel and attacked, breaching its perimeter.

Helicopters operated by the private South African security company managed to evacuate 22 people. But with both fuel supplies and the light dwindling, contractors told the roughly 180 people who remained that they would not be able to fly them out until the following morning.

Dozens of people decided to chance an escape by road in the convoy that was ambushed.

On Saturday morning, the South African-operated helicopters evacuated around 20 more people who had remained in the hotel. Several others who had escaped the town and hid in the surrounding bush were also rescued by helicopters. Some had flagged the helicopters by writing out S.O.S. messages in stones, according to Mr. Dyck.

At the same time, a convoy of at least 10 vessels sailed into the bay of Palma in an informal effort to evacuate people, according to the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com.

Twelve hours later, they sailed south together. Several of the ships docked at Pemba, where humanitarian workers say thousands of people who were displaced by the ambush were receiving aid on Sunday.

A passenger ferry that usually operates along the coast of neighboring Tanzania also docked in Palma on Saturday and arrived in Pemba the following day, according to ship-tracking data, satellite imagery and photographs shared on social media. Local sailors on traditional wooden sailing boats, known as dhows, also carried some displaced people to Pemba, according to humanitarian workers.

While some of the fleet’s efforts were successful, other boats that attempted to come ashore to rescue people were forced to pull back when militants opened fire with small arms and mortars, according to American officials. At least one American citizen was at the gas project site near Palma during the attack, but was safely evacuated to Pemba, according to a U.S. official.

On Sunday morning, Mozambique Special Forces units launched an operation to reclaim the town. But by Sunday night, militants still held much of Palma, including the harbor, the officials said.

One British citizen who was part of the convoy who worked at RA International, a contracting company headquartered in Dubai, was missing as of Sunday night, according to an executive at the company.

At least one South African, Adrian Nel, 40, was killed in the ambush on the convoy.

Mr. Nel had been in Palma working at his family’s construction consulting company alongside his brother Wesley Nel, 37, and their stepfather, Gregory Knox, 55, who were also caught in the ambush. The two men managed to escape to the nearby forest and hid until private security contractors evacuated them by helicopter the following morning.

“They spent the night in the bush, with Adrian’s body,” Mr. Nel’s mother, Meryl Knox, 59, said in an interview. Ms. Knox spoke with her husband on Wednesday as the attack unfolded and the private security contractors who rescued the men by helicopter on Saturday.

“The insurgents had surrounded the hotel and there was no help from the Mozambican army,” Ms. Knox said. “These guys were just left on their own.”

Christina Goldbaum reported from Johannesburg, South Africa. Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, D.C. Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa. John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. Charles Mangwiro contributed reporting from Maputo, Mozambique. Haley Willis, Christiaan Triebert and Malachy Browne contributed reporting from New York.

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Republic of Congo Presidential Candidate Dies of Covid-19

DAKAR, Senegal — The opposition leader was too sick to make it to his final appointments before Sunday’s election.

“I am fighting death,” he said in a weak voice on Friday, removing an oxygen mask from his face to film a message addressed to the citizens of the Republic of Congo. “But I ask you to stand up and vote for change.”

Three days later, hours after the election, he was dead. He had tested positive for Covid-19.

The candidate, Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, was trying to unseat President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has been in power for 36 years. But on Friday, Mr. Kolélas fell ill.

a New York Times database. As in many countries, this is likely an underestimate because testing levels are low.

A number of prominent African politicians have died in the past year. Some, like the Nigerian president’s right-hand man Abba Kyari and the South African cabinet minister Jackson Mphikwa Mthembu, are known to have died of Covid-19 complications. Official announcements for some others, like President John Magufuli of Tanzania and President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, have said they died of heart problems, though rumors have swirled that the coronavirus played a role in their deaths.

In the video recorded from his hospital bed, Mr. Kolélas told Congolese voters that they owed it to their children to cast a ballot in the election.

“Fight. I will not have fought in vain,” he said in the video. “Rise up as one people. Make me happy. I’m fighting on my deathbed. You, too, fight for your change.”

said that the Republic of Congo had become a “police state.”

The internet was blocked across the country on Election Day, according to the monitoring organization Netblocks. Otherwise, the election seemed to go ahead without incident. Election results are expected later this week.

“Democracy is working in our country,” Mr. Nguesso said Monday.

A former military officer, Mr. Nguesso first came to power in 1977, after his predecessor was assassinated. He lost the country’s first multiparty election in 1992, but returned to power in 1997. In 2019 the nonprofit campaigning group Global Witness accused his son of stealing $50 million in state funds.

Almost half the population lives in poverty in the Republic of Congo, which is one of the main oil producers on the African continent.

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After Death of Covid-Denying President, Tanzania May Pivot Pandemic Policy

Crowds gathered at Mr. Magufuli’s official residence on Thursday, carrying wreaths and party flags and singing religious songs on the first of 14 official days of mourning. Tanzania’s government has made no further statement since Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced late Wednesday on state television that Mr. Magufuli had died from a heart condition that had plagued him for a decade.

Opposition leaders and diplomats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, had said for days that the 61-year-old Magufuli disappeared from public view 12 days ago because he had contracted the coronavirus after the sudden deaths of five members of his cabinet.

Ms. Hassan, now president-elect, would be Tanzania’s first female president.

The confirmation of Mr. Magufuli’s death extends the paradox of the coronavirus pandemic in Africa, a continent that has registered fewer cases compared with elsewhere in the world but where several prominent leaders have died unexpectedly from coronavirus-like symptoms.

Africa’s 54 nations, with a population of about 1.3 billion, have reported only four million cases and around 100,000 deaths, far behind the U.S. tally of 29.6 million cases and 538,000 deaths among a population of about 328 million. But the continent has lost more senior leaders from the coronavirus-related complications than anywhere else in the world.

In neighboring Burundi, longtime leader Pierre Nkurunziza unexpectedly died with coronavirus-like symptoms last year while his wife was airlifted to a hospital in Nairobi to be treated for coronavirus. The vice president of Tanzania’s semiautonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died last month days after his party announced he had tested positive for the virus. Uganda’s deputy prime minister and Eswatini’s prime minister also died from the virus last year.

Tanzania’s vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, speaking on Tuesday. She is in line to become the nation’s new president.

Photo: /Associated Press

Despite the rise in high-profile cases, Mr. Magufuli’s death comes at a moment when his brand of Covid-skepticism is flourishing in the region’s most impoverished states.

Burundi’s health minister said last month that his country didn’t need Covid-19 vaccines, since the majority of patients were recovering. Eritrea and Madagascar have also declined the vaccines, with Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina promoting a locally produced herbal remedy.

Vaccine skepticism is aggravating Africa’s yawning supply gap, with less than one dose for 100 people by the end of February, compared with 31 doses for 100 people in the U.K. and 22 per 100 the U.S., according to data compiled by the University of Oxford.

Diplomats and policy analysts in Tanzania say the key question for the gold-producing nation is whether the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party can manage a smooth transition to Ms. Hassan.

The populist Mr. Magufuli, known as “the Bulldozer” for his no-nonsense approach to corruption and poverty reduction, centralized power around his personal authority. He comfortably won October elections, with Ms. Hassan playing a minor role as his running mate.

“We don’t expect Ms. Suhulu [Hassan] to immediately reverse the government’s response and impose strict Covid-19 restrictions but she will likely do so gradually in coming months, said Zaynab Mohamed, a Tanzanian analyst with NKC African Economics. “If she makes drastic changes quickly, it could negatively affect her.”

The ruling party has said it would not contest Ms. Hassan’s swearing-in as president in the coming days but opposition leaders have called for her immediate swearing in, warning that the constitution doesn’t provide for a continued power vacuum.

In recent weeks, Mr. Magufuli had begun to belatedly institute public-health measures to contain the disease, including the wearing of masks, following a spate of high-profile deaths. But the country continued to refuse to share tallies of coronavirus cases with the World Health Organization, which it stopped providing almost a year ago.

Despite his coronavirus stance and a mounting clampdown on rights and freedoms that made him an international pariah, Mr. Magufuli remained popular at home, particularly in rural communities that benefited from one of Africa’s highest growth rates in recent years. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, scores of residents huddled inside cafes and restaurants and outside on street corners to watch news about his death. Some wept as they watched the news bulletins.

Some analysts said Ms. Hassan, who has less of a political constituency, may find it tougher to continue Mr. Magufuli’s confrontational stance against international mining companies.

“Investors will be watching closely for signs Magufuli’s replacement will either stick to or diverge from the former president’s resource-nationalist path,” said Ed Hobey-Hamsher, an analyst with risk-analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Barrick Gold Corp.’s chief executive, Mark Bristow, who tussled with Mr. Magufuli for years over a high-profile tax spat in 2017 that resulted in the company paying $300 million, expressed his condolences to the Tanzanian people, describing the late leader as “a visionary statesman.”

Mr. Magufuli’s contrarian approach on the pandemic has particularly irked Washington, Tanzania’s top health and security donor that has invested around $4.9 billion in its health sector over the past two decades.

Tanzanian authorities closed down a TV station last summer for reporting on a U.S. Embassy statement that warned of rising coronavirus cases across the country. Weeks later, Mr. Magufuli accused the embassy of exaggerating the health crisis, and warned citizens against accepting U.S. donations of items such as masks and other medical supplies.

As Mr. Magufuli insisted that his country was coronavirus-free, the U.S. countered him several times, straining ties. Days before the death of the vice president of Zanzibar, the U.S. Embassy again warned of a significant increase of coronavirus cases in Tanzania. Days later, Mr. Magufuli’s chief secretary died unexpectedly, drawing panic within government circles.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences following Mr. Magufuli’s death and pledged to support Tanzania in combating the pandemic.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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President John Magufuli of Tanzania Dies at 61

NAIROBI, Kenya — President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a populist leader who played down the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and steered his country away from democratic ideals, died on Wednesday at a hospital in the port city of Dar es Salaam. He was 61.

His death was announced on television by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who said Mr. Magufuli had died of heart complications while being treated at Mzena Hospital. The announcement followed more than a week of intense speculation that Mr. Magufuli was critically ill with Covid-19 — reports that senior government officials had repeatedly denied.

Ms. Hassan did not specify the nature of Mr. Magufuli’s underlying illness in her brief televised remarks, but said that he had suffered from chronic atrial fibrillation for more than a decade. She said that flags will fly at half-staff nationwide and that funeral arrangements were underway.

Mr. Magufuli, a trained chemist, was first elected in October 2015 on an anticorruption platform. He was initially lauded for his efforts to bolster the economy, stem wasteful spending and upgrade Tanzania’s infrastructure.

marked a sharp departure from his two immediate predecessors who had promoted the East African nation as a peaceful, business-friendly democracy.

During his first term, Mr. Magufuli’s government banned opposition rallies, revoked the licenses of nongovernmental organizations and introduced laws that critics said repressed independent reporting. He also said that pregnant girls should not be allowed in school.

refused to let opposition representatives into polling stations.

On voting day, at least 10 people were killed when violence broke out in the semiautonomous archipelago of Zanzibar after citizens said they had seen soldiers delivering marked ballots.

Mr. Magufuli won that election with 84 percent of the vote amid accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities. Tundu Lissu, the main opposition candidate running against him, was accused of trying to overthrow the government and had to leave the country. He remains in exile in Belgium.

Over the past year, Mr. Magufuli came under intense criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He railed against masks and social distancing, promoted unproven remedies as cures and said that God had helped the country eliminate the virus.

Tanzania has not shared data on the coronavirus with the World Health Organization since April, and it has reported just 509 cases and 21 deaths, figures that have been widely viewed with skepticism.

As vaccine rollouts began worldwide, Mr. Magufuli discouraged the Health Ministry from securing doses for Tanzania.

in a speech to an unmasked crowd in late January. “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccines for AIDS would have been brought. Vaccines for tuberculosis would have made it a thing of the past. Vaccines for malaria would have been found. Vaccines for cancer would have been found.”

writing on Twitter, “Science shows that #VaccinesWork.”

In February, the United States Embassy in Tanzania cautioned against “a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases” and warned that “limited hospital capacity throughout Tanzania could result in life-threatening delays for emergency medical care.”

Mr. Magufuli’s death came just days after speculations that he was sick with the virus. The rumors started swirling after Mr. Lissu, the opposition figure in exile, said that the president had Covid-19 and was being treated in a hospital in neighboring Kenya.

Mr. Lissu urged the authorities to disclose the whereabouts of the president, who had not been seen in public for almost two weeks. Mr. Magufuli did not attend a virtual summit for leaders of the East African regional bloc on Feb. 27.

Tanzanian officials dismissed the rumors and said that Mr. Magufuli was working as usual.

John Pombe Joseph Magufuli was born on Oct. 29, 1959, in the district of Chato in northwestern Tanzania. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Dar es Salaam, according to the presidential office’s website. In 2009, he obtained a doctorate in chemistry from the same university, according to the website.

Before becoming president, he was a member of Tanzania’s Parliament and held a number of cabinet posts. He first developed a reputation for fighting corruption when working in cabinet positions including as the minister of lands, fisheries and public works.

Mr. Magufuli is survived by his wife, Janet, a primary schoolteacher; and two children.

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Tanzania’s President John Magufuli Dies at 61

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has died.

Photo: tanzania state house press/Reuters

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has died at the age of 61, Vice President Samia Sulhu Hassan said on state television on Wednesday.

Speculation has been rife across East Africa for more than a week that Mr. Magufuli, a vocal skeptic of Covid-19, has been sick with the coronavirus. Ms. Hassan said in the televised address that he had died of heart failure in a hospital in the commercial capital Dar-es-Salaam.

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American Soldiers Help Mozambique Battle an Expanding ISIS Affiliate

NAIROBI, Kenya — American Special Forces soldiers began training Mozambican troops this week as part of an effort to repel a spreading insurgency in northeastern Mozambique that American officials say is linked to the Islamic State. The insurgency, near some of the world’s biggest gas reserves, has killed at least 2,000 civilians and displaced another 670,000.

The American program is modest in size and scope: a dozen Army Green Berets are to train Mozambican marines for the next two months. But it signals the entry of the United States military into a counterinsurgency effort that has been aided so far mainly by South African mercenaries, who have faced accusations of human rights abuses.

The war in Mozambique is part of an alarming expansion of insurgencies believed to have ties to the Islamic State in several parts of Africa. In the past year, militants have captured swaths of territory in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, including a port on the Indian Ocean, and beheaded hundreds of civilians, according to human rights groups.

“I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” Col. Richard Schmidt, the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Africa, said in a telephone interview from Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. “For this to crop up so quickly is concerning.”

accused the mercenaries of possible war crimes, including killings of civilians. More broadly, their effectiveness against the insurgents has been limited.

John T. Godfrey, the State Department’s acting coordinator for counterterrorism, told reporters last week the United States was “concerned” by the presence of private contractors who have “not demonstrably helped” to win the battle against the Islamic State.

“It’s frankly a feature of the landscape in Cabo Delgado that complicates rather than helps efforts to address the terror threat there,” Mr. Godfrey said.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the military training program, which will focus on basic soldiering skills, could lead to more ambitious American help for Mozambique’s military including combat casualty care, planning and logistics.

The United States is also looking to step up intelligence assistance for Mozambique, the official said.

Last week, the State Department also imposed sanctions on a reported ISIS arm in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its leader, Seka Musa Baluku. Islamist insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State are also active in Libya, Mali, Niger and other parts of West Africa.

Regional experts, though, say some of those groups may be using the Islamic State name to sow fear and attract funds, while prosecuting conflicts that are essentially local in nature.

“They may be cloaked in the black flag,” said Mr. Mahtani, the Crisis Group analyst. “But what is motivating them to kill? It could be global jihad, but it could also be local conflicts and grievances.”

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington.

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Tanzanian President’s Absence Fuels Speculation About His Health

NAIROBI, Kenya — As unrecorded numbers of Tanzanians succumbed to the coronavirus, the country’s president consistently downplayed the pandemic, dismissing protective measures, scoffing at vaccines and saying God had helped to eliminate the virus.

Now, President John Magufuli’s unusually lengthy absence from public view is fueling speculation that he himself is critically ill with Covid-19 and is being treated outside the country.

The rumors started swirling this week after Tanzania’s leading opposition figure, Tundu Lissu, said Mr. Magufuli was infected with the virus and was being treated in a hospital in neighboring Kenya. In a text message, Mr. Lissu said he had it “from fairly authoritative sources” that the president was flown to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, on Monday night and checked into Nairobi Hospital, one of the largest private facilities in that country.

On Tuesday, Mr. Lissu demanded that authorities disclose the whereabouts of the president, who has not appeared in public for almost two weeks. On Wednesday, he said that Mr. Magufuli was transferred to a hospital in India to “avoid social media embarrassment” in case “the worst happened” in Kenya.

did not attend a virtual summit for the leaders of the East African regional bloc on Feb. 27 and was represented by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

“The most powerful man in Tanzania is now being sneaked about like an outlaw,” Mr. Lissu said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

“His COVID denialism in tatters, his prayer-over-science folly has turned into a deadly boomerang,” he said in another post on Thursday.

Mr. Lissu’s comments came after the Tanzanian human rights organization Fichua Tanzania said Mr. Magufuli had left the country to receive treatment in Kenya.

As speculation concerning his whereabouts and illness remained rife on social media, Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper also reported that an “African leader” had been admitted to Nairobi Hospital and cited diplomatic sources who said the leader was “on a ventilator.”

threatened to punish those circulating conjectures about his health.

“The head of the state is not a television anchor who had a program but didn’t show up,” Mwigulu Nchemba, minister for legal and constitutional affairs, said in a Twitter post. “The head of state is not the leader of jogging clubs who should be in the neighborhood every day.”

Minister of Information Innocent Bashungwa warned the public and the media that using “rumors” as official information violated the country’s media laws.

From the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, Mr. Magufuli, 61, railed against masks and social distancing measures, advocated unproven remedies as cures and said the country had “absolutely finished” the virus through prayer. Known popularly as “The Bulldozer,” Mr. Magufuli also questioned the efficacy of vaccines, arguing that if those produced by “the white man” were effective, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria would have been eliminated.

Under Mr. Magufuli’s leadership, which began with his election in 2015, Tanzania, once a model of stability in the region, has slid toward autocracy, with the authorities cracking down on the press, opposition figures and rights groups. Mr. Magufuli won a second five-year term last October, in an election marred by accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities.

Mr. Lissu, who was the main opposition candidate against Mr. Magufuli, left the country for exile in Belgium, where he remains.

Since last April, Tanzania has not shared data on the coronavirus with the World Health Organization and has reported only 509 cases and 21 deaths from Covid-19. This lack of transparency has been widely condemned, including by the director general of the W.H.O., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

warned of a “significant increase” in Covid-19 cases. The Roman Catholic Church has also called on the government to admit the truth of the virus and has urged its congregants to avoid large gatherings.

Tanzanian leaders like Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice president of Tanzania’s semiautonomous island of Zanzibar, have died after contracting the coronavirus. Soon after news spread that Mr. Hamad had succumbed to the virus last month, the minister of finance, Philip Mpango, appeared at a news conference in Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, to deny rumors that he too had died. Mr. Mpango, though, was not particularly reassuring when, flanked by unmasked doctors, he began wheezing heavily and coughing fitfully.

Facing pressure, Mr. Magufuli finally changed course in late February and asked people to wear masks and heed the advice of experts.

But for Mr. Lissu, it was too little too late.

“It’s a sad comment on his stewardship of our country that it’s come to this,” Mr. Lissu said in a post on Twitter about Mr. Magufuli’s infection, which he said is evidence “that prayers, steam inhalations and other unproven herbal concoctions he’s championed are no protection against coronavirus!”

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