Mozambique’s military says a “significant” number of fighters were killed in the battle for the northern town and gas hub of Palma, which was seized by ISIL-affiliated assailants last month.
Commander Chongo Vidigal, leader of military operations to regain control of Palma, told state television TVM the area was “safe,” although he fell short of declaring the army had regained control.
“The airfield area was the only one we needed to clear and we did that this morning. It’s completely safe,” Vidigal told journalists on Sunday.
“I think that it is a significant number of terrorists who were shot down,” he said, adding authorities would clarify the exact number later.
Footage broadcast by TVM showed soldiers hastily pulling black plastic sheets over a body on the street. Crews on site filmed the blackened remains of several buildings, including banks, the town’s hospital, and the state prosecutor’s office.
Heavily armed soldiers stood on the street as a few remaining residents slowly picked through debris.
Security forces have until now been bolstered by a South African private military company, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), but its contract with the government ends this week.
“God help the people,” DAG founder Lionel Dyck told AFP news agency via WhatsApp on Monday, adding it was “unlikely” soldiers had fully retaken Palma.
Palma is about 25km (15 miles) by road from a construction camp for gas developments – led by oil majors such as French energy giant Total – worth an estimated $60bn.
Cabo Delgado’s governor, Valygi Tualibo, painted a rosier picture, claiming Palma was back in government hands.
In the town as part of Sunday’s media visit, Tualibo told reporters he was “greatly satisfied” with what he saw.
“The situation is bleak, but we are excited,” the governor said on TVM. “Palma is under 100 percent control by Mozambican authorities.”
Vidigal noted the Total gas plant, which the company abandoned on Friday, was secure. “The facilities are safe, they are protected.”
Total pulled out all its remaining staff on Friday, while the United Nations suspended civilian evacuation flights over security concerns.
Thousands of Mozambican troops had already been deployed to Cabo Delgado before the attack on Palma. But the army’s ability to fight the rebels has long been questioned, with analysts pointing to poor training and lack of equipment.
Thousands of people in Mozambique have poured into the port city of Pemba, stretching its food and water supplies and healthcare system after a surge in violent attacks by armed groups.
The increasing flow of survivors seeking refuge in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province’s coastal city follows a campaign that has wreaked havoc on the area in recent years.
The March 24 raid on Palma was a drastic escalation that resulted in dozens of civilians being killed.
More than 11,000 civilians are known to have fled Palma in recent days, many of them children, according to the United Nations.
About 20 percent arrived in Pemba with others turning up in the districts of Mueda, Montepuez, and Nangade in Cabo Delgado.
A city of more than 200,000 in 2017, Pemba had already seen its population swell by almost three-quarters since February, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Aid workers question whether it has the capacity to support the increasing numbers.
“The city of Pemba and the infrastructure will not support the number of residents,” said Manuel Nota, who heads the Pemba branch of the Catholic charity Caritas.
Peter N’Guila, 61, is not sure how long he can support his family on his consultant’s salary as he now has to feed seven mouths, rather than three after his sister, nephew, their spouses and children took shelter in his two-bedroom home.
“I used to buy one sack of rice, but now I must buy two sacks,” he told Reuters news agency. “One kilogramme of fish now isn’t enough, I have to buy two kilogrammes,” he added.
His relatives also needed clothing and blankets he said, after they fled Palma with only the clothes on their backs.