JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Rebels fought Sunday to control a strategic town in northern Mozambique for the fifth straight day, as reports came in that dozens of civilians have been killed and bodies were littering the streets of Palma. The fate of scores of foreign workers was also unknown.
Some of the dead had been beheaded, according to Human Rights Watch. An attempt by expatriate workers to flee to safety came under heavy fire, causing many deaths, according to local reports.
The battle for Palma highlights the military and humanitarian crisis in this Southern African nation on the Indian Ocean. The three-year insurgency of the rebels, who are primarily disaffected young Muslim men, in the northern Cabo Delgado province has taken more than 2,600 lives and displaced an estimated 670,000 people, according to the U.N.
Mozambique’s government is expected to issue an update on the battle for Palma later Sunday.
Most communications with Palma and the surrounding area have been cut off by the insurgents, although some in the besieged town got messages out using satellite phones. The town is where many contractors have been working for a multi-billion-dollar liquified natural gas project by the French energy company Total.
Before phone connections were cut, Palma residents described the fighting.
“(They said) they had seen bodies lying on the streets, that the sound of gunfire was ongoing. In fact, gunfire was recorded on the background as we spoke with them. And they were telling us that they were running for safety,” Zenaida Machado, Human Rights Watch representative in Mozambique, told The Associated Press.
Many Palma residents ran into the dense tropical forest surrounding the town to escape the violence. 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 Friday a band of them in 17 vehicles drove together to the beach, where they hoped to be rescued, but the convoy came under heavy fire. Only 7 vehicles reached the beach and several people in even those vehicles had been killed, according to local reports and messages sent by survivors.
The beach remained under insurgent fire, preventing rescue efforts from air or sea, according to the reports. The Hotel Amarula remained under attack and it’s not known what happened to those in the 10 vehicles that did not reach the coast.
The assault on Palma started Wednesday after many rebels infiltrated the town, according to Mozambique News Reports and Clippings. The coordinated attacks hit Palma “in three directions,” including the airport, Mozambique’s Defense Ministry said.
Mozambique’s defense and security forces are “working tirelessly to re-establish security and order as fast as possible” and will “do everything to guarantee the security” of the local population and of the “economic projects,” Ministry of Defense spokesman Col. Omar Saranga said Thursday in the capital, Maputo.
The attacks in Palma started just hours after Total announced that it would resume work outside the town on its natural gas project, near Mozambique’s northeastern border with Tanzania. Earlier rebel attacks prompted Total in January to suspend work on the project to extract gas from offshore sites. It was preparing to gradually resume work on its operations on the Afungi peninsula a few kilometers (miles) outside of Palma.
The fresh rebel violence brings into question the fate of the gas project, one of Africa’s biggest private investments. Total paid nearly $4 billion for a 26.5% stake in the project in 2019. It had planned to start gas shipments in 2024 but the deteriorating security situation has made that goal unlikely.
Total issued a statement Saturday saying that due to the latest rebel attack it had “obviously” suspended all its operations in the Afungi peninsula. It said that none of its staff at the Afungi site were victims of the attack.
“Total expresses its sympathy and support to the people of Palma, to the relatives of the victims and those affected by the tragic events of the past days,” said the statement. “Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area.”
Mozambique’s rebels already hold the port town of Mocimboa da Praia, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Palma, which they captured in August.
Mozambique’s insurgents are known locally as al-Shabab, although they do not have any known connection to Somalia’s jihadist rebels of that name. The rebels have been active in Cabo Delgado province since 2017 but their attacks became much more frequent and deadly in the past year.
AP journalist Tom Bowker in Uzes, France, contributed.
This story has been corrected to show that the convoy of 17 vehicles left the Hotel Amarula on Friday, not Saturday.