PEMBA: The key northern Mozambique town of Palma was all but deserted on Monday, its residents fleeing by road, boat or on foot as the militant Islamic State (IS) group claimed control after a prolonged onslaught.
IS-linked militants attacked the town on Wednesday, escalating an insurgency that has spread bloodily across northern Mozambique since 2017.
Dozens of people, according to the IS and the authorities, were killed in what witnesses describe as a coordinated attack, and an unknown number were still missing.
It is the closest raid yet to a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built on a peninsula just 10 kilometres (six miles) away, by France’s Total and other energy giants.
“The caliphate’s soldiers seized the strategic town of Palma,” IS said in a statement posted on its Telegram channels.
It claimed its offensive aimed at military and government targets, killing dozens of troops and “members of Crusader states,” its term for Western nationals.
The town of 75,000 people in Cabo Delgado province was all but emptied of its population, said civil society activist Adriano Nuvunga.
“The violence has ceased, but it is believed some of the insurgents have pulled back and some are still around in hiding,” he said.
Witnesses said scores of fighters had sneaked into the town ahead of the attack.
“The attackers arrived a few days earlier and hid in the homes of locals whom they paid,” said one Palma resident, speaking from Mueda, where he had taken refuge.
“The attacks started along the main roads to Palma,” he said.
As police rushed out to try repel the invaders, the fighters inside the town mounted their own attack, according to witnesses.
The United Nations condemned the assault on Palma and said it was coordinating closely with local authorities to provide assistance to those affected by the violence.
“We are deeply concerned by the still evolving situation in Palma where armed attacks began on March 24, reportedly killing dozens of people,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Many survivors said they had walked for days through forest to seek refuge in Mueda, 180 kilometres (112 miles) to the south, where they arrived limping on swollen feet.
“Many people fell from fatigue and were unable to continue walking, especially the elderly and children,” said one escapee in Mueda who did not wish to be named.
Some survivors fled to the gas project site, from where they are being sent to the regional capital Pemba via boat.
The government said dozens were killed in the militants’ attack, including seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge. A South African is among those killed, his family said.
“Attacks started shortly after a large ship with food had just arrived,” one escapee said via an online message, referring to food aid deliveries to the farthest northern coastal town.
“They attacked the city and brought trucks to carry the food.” Witnesses said they first targeted banks and the police station before spreading across town.
Thousands of escapees were arriving on boats on Monday in Pemba, the provincial capital around 250 kms to the south, according to sources there.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2021