Mozambique’s government has said dozens of civilians were killed in an attack this week on the northern town of Palma, including seven people whose convoy of vehicles was ambushed as they attempted to flee.
Omar Saranga, a spokesman for the defence and security forces, told journalists on Sunday that hundreds of other people – locals and foreigners – were rescued from Palma, a logistics hub for international gas projects in Cabo Delgado province.
“A group of terrorists sneaked into … Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenceless people,” Saranga said.
The exact number of people wounded and killed, or still unaccounted for, remained unclear, while most communications with Palma have been cut off. The town of some 75,000 people had previously been a refuge for people fleeing growing insecurity and violence elsewhere in the province.
‘In all directions’
The assailants struck Palma on Wednesday, in a seemingly coordinated attack from several directions. Human Rights Watch said the attackers indiscriminately shot civilians in their homes and on the streets. Witnesses described bodies in the streets, some of them beheaded.
Many residents ran into the dense tropical forest surrounding the town to escape the violence, according to Mozambican news reports. But a few hundred foreign workers from South Africa, Britain and France clustered at hotels that quickly became targets for the rebel attacks.
An estimated 200 foreign workers were at the Hotel Amarula. On Saturday, a group of them in 17 vehicles drove together to try to reach the beach, where they hoped to be rescued, but their convoy came under heavy fire, according to local reports.
“The defence and security forces registered the loss of seven lives of a group of citizens that left the Amarula hotel in a convoy that was ambushed by the terrorists,” Saranga said.
“We understand that a lot of civilians are fleeing the insecurity and violence,” Laura Tomm-Bonde, of the International Organization for Migration, said earlier on Sunday.
“Initial reports indicate that civilian population has been fleeing Palma in all directions, some all the way up into Tanzania, while others are moving down south in Cabo Delgado to areas such as Nangade, Mueda and Pemba districts.”
Some residents fled to the peninsula, home of a multibillion-dollar gas project being built by France’s Total and other energy companies.
A boat that left Afungi on Saturday landed in the provincial capital of Pemba around midday, according to police patrolling the city port. Reports said there were “about 1,400” people on board. The evacuees included non-essential staff of Total and Palma residents who had sought refuge at the gas plant.