JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Insurgents took control of much of a city in Mozambique on Saturday after a three-day siege that left at least several people killed and hundreds of other civilians undeclared. Security companies in East Africa and news reports.
Nearly 200 people, including dozens of foreign workers, sought refuge in a hotel in Palma city after nearly 300 militants flooded the area, destroyed much of the city and hundreds of other residents fled to nearby areas on Wednesday.
Insurgents attacked a convoy of civilians on Friday afternoon as they tried to escape the hotel, killing several people and injuring dozens of others.
By Saturday evening, according to private security companies, the insurgents had surrounded four of the city’s hotels that host foreigners who work with international gas companies in the region.
Most of the phone lines and communications in Palma were cut during the siege, but contractors feared dozens of people might have been killed.
The attack is the latest in a brutal war in the north of the country involving insurgent groups believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State. The conflict has killed at least 2,000 civilians and displaced 670,000 more in recent years, according to humanitarian groups.
Over the past year, the militant group has grown in strength and captured large areas in the northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, home to some of the largest gas reserves in the world.
This week’s siege is the next to have led the insurgents to a multi-billion dollar gas project in the region run by international energy companies, including Total. The attack reflects an alarming escalation in the insurgent threat.
The attack on Palma began late Wednesday afternoon when around 100 militants – divided into two groups – entered the area on foot, according to private security companies in East Africa.
After some control was put in place, around 100 more insurgents came into the area, attacking villages along the way and blocking roads leading into the city center through which government forces could send reinforcements, the contractors said. The insurgents then hunted down government officials and attacked government buildings.
During the attack, nearly 200 people fled to the Amarula Palma Hotel – a guest house popular with foreign gas workers – while Mozambique security forces and private security companies at a South African-based military company tried to repel the insurgents.
On Friday afternoon, dozens of people trapped inside tried to escape in a convoy of 17 vehicles but were ambushed outside the hotel. Only seven vehicles were able to escape the city, said the private security service providers. At least several people were killed, including a South African national, and dozens of others were injured, according to news reports.
According to news, around 20 people were evacuated by helicopter on Saturday morning. It is unclear how many people were trapped in the city on Saturday night.
Unconfirmed news and reports on social media said some people made it to the beach, where boats took them to safety.
Mozambique defense officials did not respond to multiple calls on Saturday. In a statement on Thursday, officials said the country’s security forces are “tracking the enemy’s movement and working tirelessly to restore security and order as soon as possible.”
During the three-day siege, insurgents set government buildings on fire and detonated explosives at three banks and at the health clinic in the city, according to a private security company in East Africa who was aware of the attack and was not authorized to speak publicly.
Several witnesses to the attack saw bodies on the streets and people fleeing the city when gunfire rang out Wednesday, according to Human Rights Watch investigators, who spoke to seven people in Palma before communications were cut.
“The horrific mistreatment of armed groups poses a threat to civilians across the region,” said Dewa Mavhinga, director of southern Africa for Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The Mozambican authorities should make restoring security in the Cabo Delgado province a top priority.”
The attack came hours after the Mozambique government and Total, the French oil and gas company, announced they would resume work on the gas project near Palma after the company ceased operations and some employees after a series of attacks who evacuated the insurgents earlier this year.
These attacks have become increasingly brutal since the uprising began in 2017 when militants raided police stations in the region. In recent years the insurgents have attacked villages, destroyed schools and hospitals, and beheaded hundreds of people. The group itself has grown from a few dozen fighters to as many as 800 militants.
At the same time, government forces were involved in serious ill-treatment, including the arbitrary detention of civilians and the execution of dozens of suspected rioters, according to Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this month the United States officially designated the insurrection known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a as a global terrorist entity. In 2019, the group was identified with the Central African Province of the Islamic State, which is also present in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although it is unclear how closely the militants are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The State Department issued a statement on Friday condemning the Cabo Delgado attacks, saying the United States was determined to work with the Mozambique government “to counter terrorism and violent extremism”.
Earlier this month, US special forces soldiers began training Mozambican troops to support the country’s counterinsurgency operations. On Saturday, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the United States to step up that support.
“Reports of the ongoing terrorist attacks in Palma, Mozambique, describe a bloodbath,” he said. “The US and our partners must do more to combat this threat before ISIS controls more territory and slaughters more innocent civilians.”
He added, “We cannot allow ISIS to control the territory as they have for the last decade.”
Eric Schmitt and John Ismay reported from Washington, DC. Charles Mangwiro reported from Maputo, Mozambique.