Efforts to evacuate people trapped after an attack by rebel fighters in Palma city in Mozambique are continuing despite the tense situation, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a massive humanitarian crisis was under way after thousands had been forced to flee the northeastern city.
Rebel fighters attacked Palma in Cabo Delgado province near the border with Tanzania on Wednesday, killing dozens and injuring scores of others. Several people are still unaccounted for.
“We have rescued 120 people who had run away and hidden in camps,” Lionel Dyck, CEO of Dyck Advisory Group, which was contracted to help the Mozambican government and gas companies fight rebels there, told South African broadcaster SABC.
Dyck said his group also managed to escort numerous people, who could not board their helicopters, to places of safety.
“There are numerous dead bodies lying on the streets, some decapitated. We are currently not counting bodies but focusing on the living,” he said, adding that the situation in the area is still quite chaotic.
The Southern Africa Director of HRW, Dewa Mavhinga, said hundreds of thousands are in need of support.
“It is utter chaos and people are living in fear and there is no security and the Mozambican authorities have not come forward with a solution to guarantee the safety of civilians in Cabo Degado,” he told Sky News.
Omar Saranga, spokesperson for the Mozambique Defence and Security Forces, confirmed in a statement on Sunday that dozens of people, including locals and foreigners, had been killed.
The government also said “dozens of defenceless people” were killed in the coordinated raid that saw the attackers fire indiscriminately at people and buildings in the coastal town.
Among the victims were seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had fled to in order to escape Wednesday’s attack.
Portugal has said it will send around 60 troops to its former colony Mozambique following the deadly attack.
“It will support the Mozambican army in training special forces,” Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said in an interview with the state TV channel RTP late on Monday.
The armed group, locally known as al-Shabab but with no established links to the rebel group in Somalia, has wreaked havoc in northern Mozambique since late 2017, killing hundreds, displacing communities and capturing towns.
It has been able to exploit the extreme poverty and unemployment in the area to recruit in large numbers.
Dyck said the fighters were previously a group of “bandits” until they claimed affiliation to ISIL (ISIS) and have since become a serious threat.
“This was a very well planned and coordinated attack,” the retired soldier said, adding that the group even has heavy weaponry now.
On Monday, South Africa’s ambassador to Mozambique said his country was in talks with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional block of 15 countries, to seek solutions to end the violence in Mozambique.
He said many South Africans who were working in Palma have now been moved to Pemba, a town nearby, and some crossed into Tanzania.
On Monday, a small UN plane carrying adults and children – including an injured one-year-old baby – arrived at Pemba airport.
According to the Lusa news agency, a bullet hit the baby’s leg while he was in his mother’s arms as they ran from the rebels.
A survivor, Nelson Matola, described what happened in the town as a “massacre”. Matola said some tried to escape in a convoy of 17 vehicles on Friday.
“We went to Amarula [Hotel Amarula] where we stayed for two or three days. In Amarula, we were surrounded by al-Shabab and after four days without eating, we decided to leave and go to the forest and escape. Some colleagues lost their lives,” said Matola.
Palma is at the centre of a multibillion-dollar investment by Total, the France-based oil and gas company, to extract liquefied natural gas from offshore sites in the Indian Ocean.
The gas deposits are estimated to be among the world’s largest and the investment by Total and others is reported to be $20bn, one of the largest in Africa.