PALMA, 29 March 2021 – Islamist militants have killed dozens of civilians in the Mozambican town of Palma in the country’s volatile northern Cabo Delgado province.
The victims include seven people whose convoy was ambushed and all of them killed as they attempted to escape a siege on a hotel, according to Omar Saranga, a spokesperson for Mozambique’s defense ministry.
“A group of terrorists sneaked into … Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenseless people,” Saranga told journalists during a briefing Sunday.
Situated only a few miles from major international oil and gas projects, including the mega Total oil and gas project in Cabo Delgado province, Palma is a logistics hub.
The other victims were shot dead or beheaded by the insurgents in this latest flare-up of violence which began last Wednesday.
As of Monday, the exact number of people wounded and killed, or still unaccounted for, remained unclear.
Communications with Palma have been cut off as the military continues on a painstaking offensive to try to take back control of the town.
Hundreds of people held hostage by Islamist militants were reportedly rescued in counter-insurgency operations launched by reinforced army units flown in from the capital, Maputo.
People are fleeing the town in droves, with thousands believed to be hiding in nearby forests.
Boat traffic has been heavy, evacuating fleeing Palma residents in the direction of the port city of Pemba, according to news reports citing maritime authorities.
One of the rescue boats brought 1,400 people to safety in Pemba, situated about 155 miles (250km) south of Palma on Sunday afternoon.
The BBC reported Sunday that Palma residents who waited to be rescued said they were on a beach in Palma strewn with headless bodies.
More boats continued to arrive Pemba Monday morning with passengers confirming that the gun battles in Pemba continued to rage all day Sunday, four full days after government officials said they had taken control of the town and driven out the insurgents.
The relative success of the militants in looting at least one bank, many shops, and hotels, and making away with weapons during lightning attacks on military barracks and on a riot police base could mean the insurgents have enough supplies to sustain several more days of gun battles with the military.
The Islamist militants known locally as al-Shabab are infamous for beheadings.
Palma and its immediate vicinity have been under this latest round of intensified armed attacks by Islamist militants since last Wednesday.
Dozens of expatriates working on the Total oil and gas project near Palma have been flown to safety in helicopters but foreigners, including British, French, and South African citizens were reportedly caught up in the hotel siege.
The United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Africa James Duddridge tweeted Sunday that London was contacting Britons in the area to provide support.
“The UK wholeheartedly condemns the appalling violence in Cabo Delgado. It must stop. We stand with the people of Mozambique against terror,” Duddridge’s tweet read in part.
Palma is a ghost town Monday with most of its 75,000 inhabitants either in hiding or unaccounted for.
A good part of the 75,000 people who live in Palma have fled growing insecurity and violence elsewhere in Cabo Delgado and were hoping that they had found a safe haven in the town until the Islamist militants’ attacks of last Wednesday.
The insurgents are linked to the Islamic State (IS) group.
Since the violence broke out in the predominantly Muslim Cabo Delgado in 2017, more than 2,500 people have been killed and nearly 600,000 have been internally displaced.