MAPUTO, Mozambique: Dozens of people are dead following an attack on the town of Palma in northern Mozambique, according to a spokesperson for the country’s defence department. Seven were killed trying to escape a siege on a hotel, said Omar Saranga. Hundreds of others, both locals and foreigners, were reportedly rescued.
The area has been under attack by Islamist militants since Wednesday. Witnesses have described hiding out while waiting to be rescued by boat, on a beach strewn with headless bodies.
Palma is near a major gas project run by the French energy giant Total, and more than 100 workers and civilians took refuge in the town’s Amarula Palma hotel.
Marine traffic websites showed a string of vessels around the town, and the port of Pemba to the south, as people tried to escape by any means – cargo vessels, passenger ships, tugs and recreational boats.
Many who escaped the hotel via convoy hid at the beach overnight on Friday and were evacuated by boat on Saturday morning.
More people were delivered to safety after him, and that the boats would be returning on Sunday to rescue more still.
Sources said civilians living and working in the area appeared to be coordinating the rescue effort.
Local suppliers and companies, these guys were heroes of the entire operation. In the wee hours, they managed to co-ordinate and reach out to the evacuees on the beach and got them on to boats and got them into safety.
A rescue operation is underway in Palma, Cabo Delgado, after gunmen stormed the town on Wednesday, killing “dozens of people”, according to ministry of Defense spokesman. He didn’t say if any of the gunmen was arrested or killed. @dewamavhinga @hrw pic.twitter.com/zmigPFxuQE
— Zenaida Machado (@zenaidamz) March 28, 2021
“Where the hell was the support from big companies, from countries?” he asked.
South African Adrian Nel was killed trying to escape, his mother Meryl Knox told media persons.
Her husband, Gregory, managed to make it out of Palma – though she told AFP that he had to carry the body of their dead son until he was rescued. Her other son was also able to escape.
But once they had fled, Knox told the BBC that they had “no army to protect them… it was a matter of, ‘run for your life’.”
“This could have been avoided,” she added. “My son could still be alive today.”
One source close to the rescue operation revealed that a boat with about 1,400 people on board had arrived in the port town of Pemba, which is about 250 kilometres south of Palma, on Sunday afternoon.
Aid agencies said several more small boats packed with displaced people were en route to Pemba and likely to arrive overnight or on Monday morning.
The exact number of casualties in Palma, a town of about 75,000 people in Cabo Delgado province, is unclear.
The town and beaches are strewn with bodies “with heads and without”, according to Col Lionel Dyke, whose private security firm, Dyck Advisory Group, is contracted by the Mozambique police in the area.
The armed group is reported to have taken control of Palma, but those claims are hard to verify amid a communications blackout.
Many residents ran into the dense tropical forest surrounding the town to escape the violence, according to Mozambican news reports. But a few hundred foreign workers from South Africa, Britain and France clustered at hotels that quickly became targets for the rebel attacks.
An estimated 200 foreign workers were at the Hotel Amarula. On Saturday, a group of them in 17 vehicles drove together to try to reach the beach, where they hoped to be rescued, but their convoy came under heavy fire, according to local reports.
“The defence and security forces registered the loss of seven lives of a group of citizens that left the Amarula hotel in a convoy that was ambushed by the terrorists,” Saranga said.
Several other 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.
Emilia Columbo, a senior associate at the Africa Programme of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the civilians fleeing Palma faced a “very dire” situation.