Southern African leaders have vowed to deliver a “proportionate” response to jihadists who attacked a northern Mozambican town last month, following a regional summit that appears to mark a turning point in their involvement in the crisis.
Six presidents from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the region's main intergovernmental body, engaged in emergency talks on Thursday on how to respond to the growing threat from Islamist militants in Mozambique's resource-rich Cabo Delgado province.
Late last month the insurgents, known locally as Al-Shabaab ("the youth"), killed dozens of people in an attack on Palma, a strategically important coastal town located near a multibillion euro liquefied natural gas project being developed by French energy company Total.
It was the first time Al-Shabaab, which began its fight to establish a caliphate in Cabo Delgado in 2017 and claims to have links with Islamic State, targeted and killed foreigners.
On Thursday it was widely reported that the bodies of 12 white people were found beheaded near a Palma hotel in which foreign contractors had taken refuge after the estimated 150 jihadists launched their assault on the town on March 24th.
It was also confirmed in late March that a South African and British national were killed in an ambush while trying to escape the fighting in a convoy of vehicles.
After the summit in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, SADC leaders issued a statement in which they "affirmed that such heinous attacks cannot be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response".
The presidents of Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania have also dispatched a technical team to assess the crisis ahead of another SADC summit scheduled for the end of April.
Zimbabwe's president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told journalists afterwards that they had agreed a SADC standby force "should be resuscitated and capacitated immediately so it can intervene".
Until this week Mozambique's president, Filipe Nyusi, had resisted appeals from SADC to allow it to intervene in the insurgency to prevent it from destabilising the region.
However, pressure has been growing on his administration to accept outside assistance as Mozambique’s army appears unable to deal with the insurgents, whose attacks have become more sophisticated and deadly over the past year.
A small number of US military instructors are already training Mozambican troops, while Portugal is expected to send soldiers in the next few weeks to provide training.
Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Liesl Louw-Vaudran said the aim of the summit was to convince Mozambique to accept SADC’s assistance, and this appeared to have been achieved.
“Clearly decisions were made and adopted at the summit that could lead to an operational standby SADC force. The deployment of the technical team to Maputo also suggests that planning is under way,” she said.
Ms Louw-Vaudran said that any regional military response to the crisis would still be led by Mozambique, and that the type of intervention should become clearer at the next SADC summit in late April.
“If SADC is going to dispatch [to Cabo Delgado] the classical multilateral force made up of troops from member states, it will have to be announced publicly; it is not something that could be done in secret,” she said.