In his first on-camera interview, Lionel Dyck, the head of Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), told CNN that insurgents in northern Mozambique effectively hold the strategic town of Palma after they staged a complex attack last week.
“As I sit here, Palma is lost. Unless something happens, they have lost Palma,” he said, “we continue to rescue people today who are hiding in the bush and to engage the terrorists. The insurgents are running in and out of houses. It is a standard ISIS-like tactic to hide amongst the people.”
DAG is contracted by the Mozambican police to help fight an insurgency that has killed at least 2,000 civilians and pushed hundreds of thousands from their homes in Cabo Delgado province, since attacks started in 2017.
Dyck is a former Zimbabwean military colonel in his 70s who made his name leading de-mining teams and anti-poaching units since retiring from military service.
Since the initial attack on Palma Wednesday, pilots and crew from DAG have rescued scores of civilians, many of them sheltering in the Amarula lodge as armed gunmen assaulted the town. Insurgents ambushed at least one convoy trying to flee to safety. Dyck says their helicopters have repeatedly taken fire, but none of the crew have been hurt.
“We have small helicopters that can carry four or perhaps six people at a time,” he said, adding that they dropped people at the airstrip at the nearby natural gas development.
“This is what we are there for and what we went to Mozambique for. There were a lot of people in trouble from those guys,” he said, referring to the militants.
Dyck said that the insurgents attacked in three groups and were well equipped with light arms and mortars – something that his crews had not seen before. But he says that he was not surprised that the attack happened after the end of the rainy season, giving the fighters time to plan.
“The situation on the ground was awful when my pilots got there. The first thing they saw were food trucks on the road where the drivers and their assistants had been pulled out and beheaded. They were lying next to their cars,” Dyck said.
“What we are concerned about is that nothing seemed to be done for the people up there, particularly by the oil company, for any kind of emergency procedures. That shocked me,” he said.
French oil giant Total is developing a billion-dollar natural gas find near Palma and many of those caught up in the fighting were contractors on the project.
In a statement to CNN, Total said that “Mozambique LNG confirms that it has been and is currently providing all possible support to the Mozambican authorities for the rescue operations on-going in Palma.”
Dyck’s operations have not been without controversy. In early March a report by Amnesty International said that DAG was carrying out indiscriminate attacks including firing into crowds and targeting civilian infrastructure like hospitals.
“Everything that they said was totally unfair, it was a desktop study,” Dyck told CNN.
He admitted that DAG crews had fired into crowds when terrorists were attacking his men from among civilians, and “dissidents [who] ran into a hospital shooting at us so we shot them,” Dyck explained.
Dyck told CNN that a law firm hired by DAG was conducting an investigation into the allegations, and that all their actions were cleared by a senior Mozambican officer.
He said that their operation has been one of the only effective measures against attacks, but that their contract is up in early April.
“I have no idea why that mercenaries are so badly spoken of. We have that reputation too, good or bad, I don’t understand it. We are doing something that nobody else can do or has wanted to do so use what you have got. And if it is not efficient, fire us. It as simple as that. I am happy to go home,” he said.