Palma deserted as thousands flee deadly insurgent attack
Pemba, Mozambique - The northern Mozambique town of Palma, seized by militants last week, was all but deserted on Monday after thousands of residents abandoned their homes and fled by road, boat and on foot.
Many walked for days through surrounding forest to seek refuge the neighbouring town of Mueda, 180 kilometres (112 miles) south of Palma, where they arrived limping on swollen feet.
"Along the way... many people fell from fatigue and were unable to continue walking, especially the elderly and children," said one escapee in Mueda who did not wish to be named.
Militants raided Palma, a town of around 75 000 in the province of Cabo Delgado, on Wednesday in a major escalation of an Islamist insurgency that has steadily spread across northern Mozambique since 2017.
Dozens of people were killed in the large-scale attack, the closest yet to a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built there by France's Total and other energy companies.
Some survivors fled to the gas project site, from where they are being sent to the regional capital Pemba via boat.
The government said dozens were killed in the coordinated militant attack, including seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge.
A South African is among those killed, his family said.
"Attacks started shortly after a large ship with food had just arrived," one escapee told AFP via an online message, referring to food aid deliveries to the farthest northern coastal town. "They attacked the city and brought trucks to carry the food."
Boatloads of survivors
Thousands of escapees were arriving on boats in Pemba on Monday, according to sources in the city.
International aid agency sources said between 6 000 and 10 000 people are waiting to be evacuated to safety following the raid on Palma.
The attack forced expatriate workers and locals to seek refuge temporarily at a heavily guarded gas plant located on the Afungi peninsula - 10 kilometres (six miles) from Palma, on the Indian Ocean coast south of the Tanzanian border.
Operations are under way to move them to Pemba, around 250 kilometres south of Palma.
Sea Star, a large passenger vessel, arrived in Pemba on Sunday with around 1 400 people, mostly workers including Total employees.
Another ship arrived in Pemba on Sunday afternoon and was released on Monday morning, according to an official from an international aid agency operating in the city.
"Authorities indicate that there will be a boat that will arrive during the day," the source told AFP.
Thousands of other people were still stuck at Afungi, with some expected to have arrived in smaller boats overnight Sunday and early Monday.
Police and military have cordoned off the zone, hampering access to the area where the boats were landing.
UN agencies were due to hold emergency talks in Pemba to coordinate the evacuation and humanitarian aid for the new arrivals.
The defence ministry said late Sunday that the security forces have "reinforced their operational strategy to contain the criminal attacks of terrorists and restore normality in Palma, having carried out operational actions focused primarily on the rescue of hundreds of citizens in the last three days."
The provincial capital Pemba is already packed with hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by the Islamist insurgency, which has uprooted nearly 700 000 from their homes across the vast province.
'Shot while fleeing'
The armed attackers fired on civilians in their homes and on the streets "as they tried to flee for their lives", according to Human Rights Watch.
Witnesses told AFP they first targeted banks and the police station before descending on the rest of the town.
The violent, calculated raid broke a three-month hiatus in Islamist attacks widely attributed to counter-insurgency tactics and the rainy season from January through March.
Although the extremist fighters launched their campaign in 2017, experts say they had begun mobilising a decade earlier as disgruntled youths started to practise a stricter form of Islam, upset over locals drinking alcohol and entering mosques dressed in shorts and shoes.
The violence has now taken root and claimed at least 2 600 lives, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).
"We are extremely concerned about the impact that this new outbreak of violence is having on already very vulnerable people who have been affected by years of conflict," said medical charity MSF.