Johannesburg – ISIS claimed responsibility for the bloody siege of a city in the East African nation of Mozambique last week, which forced tens of thousands of people to flee the region and killed dozens. The assault lasted nearly a week, with heavily armed insurgents violently taking control of the northern port city of Palma. Many foreign nationals working on natural gas projects in the region have been killed or captured.
In an interview you’ll only see on CBS News, correspondent Debora Patta spoke to a South African entrepreneur who made a daring escape with his father and brother.
As Patta reported, the rapid rise of the new ISIS franchise took everyone by surprise. Last month, the United States officially designated the ISIS group in Mozambique, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, a global terrorist entity, and imposed sanctions on its leader, appointed by the States- United under the name of Abu Yasir Hassan. US officials are watching developments in the country with concern, and US special forces are training Mozambican troops in counterterrorism tactics.
But this training only began several weeks ago, so when ISIS fighters escalated their insurgency in the northeastern region of Cabo Delgado with the brazen assault on the city of Palma, the Mozambique’s army has been outmatched, overworked, overwhelmed and no match for militants.
As insurgents besieged Palma, construction contractors Greg Knox and his two sons Adrian and Wesley Nel sought refuge with colleagues at the Amarula Palma Hotel.
When the fighting approached, with the sound of mortars and gunfire outside, they descended into the hotel bar.
“We started getting shot at each other,” Wesley told Patta. “They were shooting us over the wall. So we [were] all lying on the floor and just keeping their heads down. ”
The insurgency raging in Cabo Delgado began three years ago, but has escalated dramatically in recent months. At stake is a $ 50 billion natural gas project being developed by French and American companies a few kilometers south of Palma.
The new, more sophisticated weaponry from the ISIS group was fully exposed in the attack on Palma, with gunfire, grenades and mortars pounding the city relentlessly for days.
Fearing the militants would storm the hotel, Adrian risked his life to recover a gun hidden in an abandoned vehicle outside. Wesley kept a watchful eye and grew more and more frantic that his brother was taking too long. Adrian eventually returned with the AK-47, but that would be of little use against well-armed militants.
“There might have been a one hour period where it calmed down,” Wesley recalls. “Other than that, it was non-stop … There was gunfire right around us. We were surrounded probably in the area of about 15 insurgents who were shooting at us over the wall.”
They knew the walls weren’t high enough to keep IS fighters out for long, so with everyone locked in the hotel, they made endless frantic pleas for help. , but none came.
Wesley kept reassuring his father and brother that they would all come out of the ordeal.
“One thing I told them was, ‘I’m happy to be here with you, and not anywhere else watching what’s on TV. I am grateful to be with you guys. “So yeah, just to look after each other,” he told CBS News.
On the third day, trapped at the hotel, their only hope for rescue were helicopters circling overhead – transported by a private South African security company.
They listened for hours as the plane fought the jihadists and evacuated the survivors. But as night approached, the helicopters ran out of fuel and had to turn around.
As ISIS insurgents surrounded the hotel, those inside faced a terrifying choice: stay put and hope to be rescued, or flee.
“We knew Friday night… We won’t survive another night,” Wesley told CBS News. “If they came in… we would be slaughtered.
They decided to run for it. They planned an attempted escape from Palma in a convoy of 17 vehicles.
There was only one armored vehicle with room for passengers, so they put all the women and kids in the hotel in there, Wesley said, “and we were all in non-vehicles. armored. “
His brother Adrian got behind the wheel of one of them.
“You keep your head down, yeah?” Wesley can be heard warning his brother on the video he shot on his cell phone. “It’s gonna be the lifeblood of your life, bro.”
Wesley stopped filming as the vehicles exited the hotel doors. They sped along a road lined with thick vegetation, but within minutes they came under fire. In a second ambush, Adrian was shot in the shoulder and leg, but continued to drive as Wesley tried to stop the bleeding.
“I was just screaming at him, ‘I love you’,” he said to Patta, fighting back tears. “Eventually the car came to a stop and I jumped out of the back seat forward and lifted and pushed him back where my dad was holding him and his injuries to stop the blood.
“We drove as fast as possible,” recalls Wesley. “Another vehicle ahead of us entered a corner too fast and rolled around and the – just bodies all over the place. I continued to drive, screaming just to try to save his life… I kept telling him how much I love him, and that I will take care of his family. “
Eventually, they reached the agreed-upon rallying point, a quarry.
“I got out of the car and tried to save my brother some more, but he was already gone… I took his things and took his ring, bracelets, wallet and phones,” Wesley remembers. , collapsing to the still- raw memory. “I covered him up and said goodbye to him, and thank you for saving all of our lives and, then we left him in the car and we ran into the bush.”
They hid in the dense undergrowth for two days.
Finally, the expected help came. The heart-wrenching ordeal was over, and they set off to join Adrian’s family – bringing with them the body of a beloved son and brother, and the heart-wrenching images on their phones from his last days.
A senior US State Department official told CBS News that ISIS’s battlefield tactics in Mozambique mirror those used in Iraq and Syria, and experts fear this may be another land grab by the terrorist group which, if successful, could give it a new launch. pad for attacks on the West.
Adrian Nel’s family have created two web pages to help his wife and three young children. If you would like to help, please visit their GoFundMe page or the Adrian Nel Family Foundation page on BackaBuddy.