Islamist militants seized control of a town in northern Mozambique, killing several people including at least one foreign worker, near a huge gas project involving France’s Total and other energy companies, security sources said on Saturday.
Militants raided the town of Palma in the northern province of Cabo Delgado on Wednesday, forcing nearly 200 people including foreign gas workers to be evacuated from a hotel where they had sought refuge.
Some people were killed, including a South African, in an ambush during the rescue operation led by the military, security sources and some surviving workers said, though details were not immediately available on their numbers or nationalities.
Local media reported at least seven workers were killed during the ambush. The government has not given an update on the attack since Thursday.
The militant attack on Palma was the closest yet to the gas project in a three-year Islamist insurgency across Mozambique’s north.
“Government forces have withdrawn from Palma so the town has been taken,” one security source said. Another source confirmed militants had taken the town though fighting in the area was ongoing.
Palma is about six miles (10km) from the liquified natural gas project located on the Afungi peninsula on the Indian Ocean coast near the Tanzania border. Jihadist militants staged the surprise raid, sending terrified residents into nearby forests, while gas and government workers sought shelter at the Amarula Palma hotel. The defence ministry spokesman, Omar Saranga, urged people to “remain calm and follow the rescue instructions given by the authorities”.
Several other people were killed, witnesses and a rights group said.
About 80 people were taken away from the hotel in military trucks on Friday, but some of the vehicles were ambushed, an official from a private security firm involved in the rescue operation, said. “The 17-car convoy with people rescued from Amarula (hotel) was attacked soon after it left. Some have been killed but many managed to escape,” the source said.
Those remaining in the hotel went to nearby military barracks on the beachfront and were ferried out on boats to an undisclosed location, the source said. “At first it was thought they had been killed … They were around 100 people,” the source added.
Mobile phone communication with Palma has been disrupted since the assault began.
A South African government source told AFP in Johannesburg that one South African national had been killed in the violence.
The attack came hours after Total, the principal investor in the £14.5bn 16.9bn euro) gas project, said it was gradually resuming work, after it had suspended all construction work in January due to a spate of attacks.
Six other international firms including ExxonMobil are also present in the region.
“The scale and intensity of the attack on Palma required meticulous planning, suggesting that group used a lull in the fighting during rainy season in the first the months of 2021 to prepare a concentrated high-profile attack,” said Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa Analyst at the UK-based risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet, but recently some assaults have increasingly been claimed by the Islamic State Central Africa Province, affiliated with the Islamic State group.
The extremists fighters have since October 2017 raided villages and towns across Mozambique’s north, causing almost 700,000 people to flee their homes. The violence has left at least 2,600 people dead, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data.
Speaking on the phone on Friday evening after he was evacuated to Afungi, one worker said most of the town had been destroyed and “many people are dead”.
Human Rights Watch said witnesses had spoken of seeing “bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the … fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings”.