Mozambique: armada of boats rescues civilians trapped by terrorists

Before the ambush by insurgents, rescue efforts had been underway with at least 20 people flown to safety in helicopters

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 16, 2017, a Mozambican woman walks in Palma, a small, palm-fringed fishing town meant to become a symbol of Mozambique's glittering future, transformed by one of the world's largest liquefied natural gas projects. Islamist militants have seized control of the northern Mozambique town of Palma, near a huge gas project involving French oil major Total and other international energy companies, security sources said on March 27, 2021. In their closest attack to the gas project in the three-year insurgency, the militants attacked the town in the northern province of Cabo Delgado on March 24, forcing nearly 200 people including foreign gas workers to be evacuated from a hotel where they had sought refuge. / AFP / JOHN WESSELS

Terrorists thought to be affiliated with ISIS attacked a convoy of fleeing civilians, including foreign workers, as fighting continued in a northern Mozambique town that is near a number of gas projects, security and diplomatic sources said.

At least one person was killed and a number wounded in Friday's attack, according to three sources and three organisations with employees inside a hotel where people have been taking refuge in the town of Palma.

Since Friday, evacuations from the town have been conducted by air and sea, with the latter effort involving a flotilla of nearby ships, according to risk analysis firm Ambrey Intelligence.

Some of the rescue efforts by sea were reportedly harassed by gunfire from boats captured by the terrorists.

French energy group Total said on Saturday it had postponed the restart of work at its site near Palma, a logistics hub adjacent to gas projects worth $60 billion.

No project staff were among the victims of the fighting, it said.

The attack on Palma began just hours after Total said on Wednesday that it would resume work at its $20 billion project after halting operations in January due to security concerns.

Nearly 200 people had been sheltering in the Amarula Palma hotel during the attack, according to three diplomats and one of the organisations with people inside.

They included a Spanish resident and other foreigners who locked themselves in a protected room in the hotel, a Spanish diplomatic source told Reuters.

Spain's foreign ministry confirmed there had been a Spanish citizen in Palma who managed to flee the town.

Before the ambush, rescue efforts had been underway with at least 20 people flown to safety in helicopters, said Lionel Dyck, who runs Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private security company that works with Mozambique's government.

On Friday afternoon, some people attempted to escape in a convoy of vehicles but were ambushed just outside the hotel, according to Mr Dyck, two diplomats and the organisations with people inside.

Mr Dyck said his helicopters evacuated more than 20 survivors on Saturday.

Some still missing

Reuters could not independently verify the accounts. Most communications with Palma are down. Officials at Mozambique's foreign ministry, defence ministry and provincial government did not immediately respond to calls or had their phones switched off on Saturday.

The national police said they were evaluating the situation, without providing further details.

Mozambique's government said on Thursday that security forces were working to restore order in Palma.

The province of Cabo Delgado, where the town is located, has since 2017 been the target of a simmering insurgency linked to ISIS.

It was not immediately clear how many people, if any, remained in the Amarula Palma hotel on Saturday and how many were missing.

Contacted via Facebook, the hotel said it could not give any information.

South Africa's foreign ministry said some of its citizens had been affected by attacks on foreign nationals on Friday. It did not elaborate.

Cindy Cooke, a South African whose 21-year-old stepson Francois van Niekerk is in Palma, was frantically trying to get information.

His family had not heard from him since Wednesday, though rescuers had been to his location on Saturday and he was not there, she said.

"It's scary. Being there is no joke. They (the insurgents) are ruthless, just ruthless," she said.

Beheadings have been a hallmark of attacks by the insurgents, whose rebellion is rooted in local issues from poverty and unemployment to perceived corruption and religious discrimination.

Portugal's foreign ministry said one of its nationals had been injured in the fighting but did not specify the circumstances. The person had since been rescued, and its embassy in Maputo was working to identify other Portuguese nationals who needed support, the ministry said in an email.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it spoke to seven people in Palma before communications were cut on Wednesday. They described people fleeing as gunshots rang out, bodies in the streets and insurgents firing at both people and buildings, the group said in a statement.


Gallery: insecurity in Mozambique