Dozens of people were killed during coordinated jihadi attacks in Palma in northern Mozambique, the defense ministry said Sunday, four days after the raids were launched.
"Last Wednesday, a group of terrorists sneaked into…Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenseless people," defense ministry spokesman Omar Saranga told a news conference Sunday.
Seven of those were killed in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge, Saranga said.
In the last three days, government security forces have prioritized "the rescue of hundreds of citizens, nationals and foreigners," he said, without giving a breakdown of the numbers.
The unknown number of militants began attacking the town, a gas hub in the province of Cabo Delgado, on Wednesday, forcing nearly 200 people to take refuge at the Amarula hotel with others taking cover in the nearby tropical forest.
The 200 civilians were temporarily taken to the heavily guarded gas plant on the Afungi Peninsula on the Indian Ocean coast south of the Tanzanian border before being moved to Pemba.
Some residents of the city of about 75,000 people also fled to the peninsula, home of a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built by France's Total and other energy companies.
A ship that left Afungi on Saturday landed in Pemba around midday, according to police patrolling the city port.
According to a source close to the rescue operation, about 1,400 people were on board.
The evacuees included non-essential staff of Total and Palma residents who had sought refuge at the gas plant.
Several small boats packed with displaced people were on their way to Pemba and expected to arrive overnight or Monday morning, according to humanitarian aid agencies.
Airport officials in Pemba said humanitarian aid flights had been suspended to free up space for military operations.
Caritas, a Catholic aid agency that is active in the province, also reported new arrivals to Pemba, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Palma.
Shot in their homes
"Now we await the arrival of people who are most vulnerable so that we can provide assistance," the local head of Caritas, Manuel Nota, told AFP.
Human Rights Watch said the militants indiscriminately shot civilians in their homes and on the streets.
"A rescue operation is currently under way. An unknown number of people died as they tried to flee Amarula hotel," Human Rights Watch regional director Dewa Mavhinga told AFP, adding their rescue convoy "was attacked by the insurgents."
The militant attack on Palma is the closest yet to the major gas project during a three-year Islamist insurgency across Mozambique's north.
Since October 2017, extremist fighters have raided villages and towns in the region, prompting nearly 700,000 to flee their homes.
The violence has left at least 2,600 people dead, half of them civilians, according to the U.S.-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).
A South African worker was killed in the Palma violence, according to a government source in his native country.
Martin Ewi, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based think tank, the Institute for Security Studies, said that more than 100 people were unaccounted for.
"That's what we know so far, but it so confusing," Ewi said.
While local media reports said British workers may also have been caught in the attack, Britain's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office said its embassy in Maputo was in "direct contact with authorities in Cabo Delgado to urgently seek further information on these reports."
"The UK wholeheartedly condemns the appalling violence in Cabo Delgado. It must stop," Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, tweeted.
The U.S., whose troops are helping to train Mozambican troops to fight the insurgency, said Sunday it "continues to monitor the horrific situation in Palma," adding one American citizen who was in Palma had been safely evacuated.
The embassy announced earlier this month that American military personnel will spend two months training soldiers in Mozambique.
Source: Voice of America