More than 180 people escaped from hotel in a northern Mozambique town that was besieged by insurgents for three days, workers and security sources said.
Several people were killed during the escape bid on Friday, witnesses and a rights group said, after the attack in Palma near a liquefied natural gas site in Cabo Delgado province.
French oil giant Total is the principal investor in the $20 billion project – Africa’s largest. Six other international companies including ExxonMobil operate in the area.
Extremist militants attacked the coastal town on Wednesday afternoon. Terrified villagers fled into surrounding forest as LNG and government workers sought shelter at the Amarula Palma hotel.
“Almost the entire town was destroyed. Many people are dead,” a worker on the LNG site said on Friday evening after he was taken to Afungi.
Jasmine Opperman, a security analyst who specialises in terrorism in Africa, said the attack had been “meticulously planned”.
A security source said: “As locals fled to the bush, workers from LNG companies, including foreigners, took refuge in hotel Amarula where they are waiting to be rescued.”
Human Rights Watch said the attackers are linked to a group known locally as Al Shabab, which has no known direct link to the Somalian terrorist organisation of the same name.
“Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the Al Shabab fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings,” the rights group said on Friday.
South African news website News24 reported that one South African citizen died during the attack.
Another worker from a company subcontracted by Total said helicopters flew over the hotel earlier on Friday trying to find “a corridor to rescue the approximately 180 people trapped in the hotel”.
The South African news outlet Daily Maverick reported that the helicopters were flown by Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private security company that works with the Mozambique government.
“Until nightfall, many people remained on the premises while militants tried to advance towards the hotel,” he said.
In an unverified short video clip shared on social media, an unidentified man filmed the hotel lobby showing several people milling around the patio.
The buzzing sound of a helicopter in the background, he described the situation in Palma as “critical”.
“We don’t know if we will be rescued,” he said.
He said the hotel had run out of food but still had water.
The Mozambique government on Thursday confirmed the attack on the town and said soldiers had launched an offensive to repel the fighters from the town.
The new round of attacks began on Wednesday, hours after Total announced a gradual resumption of work at the liquefied natural gas project, which had been hampered by the insurgency in the region.
Militants affiliated with ISIS raided villages and towns across the province, causing about 700,000 people to flee their homes.
At least 2,600 people were killed in the violence, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data.
On Friday, the US embassy in Maputo condemned the attack on Palma. It pledged its commitment “to working with the government of Mozambique to counter violent extremism”.