ISIS-linked militants seize Mozambique town, forcing thousands to flee, including workers on major gas project


/ CBS/AFP

Pemba, Mozambique — Thousands of survivors of coordinated jihadist attacks in northern Mozambique's Palma town were arriving on boats in the provincial capital Pemba on Monday, according to sources in the city. International aid agency sources said between 6,000 and 10,000 people were waiting to be evacuated to safety following the raid on Palma that began last Wednesday.

Extremist militants raided Palma, a town of around 75,000 people with strategic value in the province of Cabo Delgado. The town is home to a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built by France's Total and other energy companies.  

The government said dozens were killed in the attack, including seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge.

ISIS-linked militants seize Mozambique town, forcing thousands to flee, including workers on major gas project
The Sea Star 1, owned by the Tanzanian Zan Ferries, is seen docked at the port in Pemba, Mozambique, March 29, 2021. The Sea Star was used to evacuate around 1,400 people, mostly workers including those employed at the French energy giant Total, after armed insurgents attacked the city of Palma. ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP/Getty

As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reported this month, the U.S. has boosted its support for Mozambique as the country faces a bloody ISIS-linked Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

ISIS claimed responsibility on Monday for the brazen attack on Palma, saying it's forces were now in control of the town.

ISIS said in a statement released by its own Amaq "news" agency, citing "a security source," as it often does, that "Islamic State militants launched a major attack on the economic city of Palma near the Tanzanian border last Wednesday, engaging Mozambican forces inside the city using various types of weapons," claiming the siege "led to the killing of 55 Mozambican troops and Christians, including some foreign contractors." 

The attack was the closest yet to the major gas project since the insurgency broke out across Mozambique's north in October 2017. The siege forced expatriate workers and locals to seek refuge temporarily at a heavily guarded gas plant located on the Afungi peninsula — six miles from Palma, on the Indian Ocean coast south of the Tanzanian border.

Operations were under way to move them to Pemba, around 150 miles south of Palma.

ISIS-linked militants seize Mozambique town, forcing thousands to flee, including workers on major gas project
AP

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.

ISIS-linked militants seize Mozambique town, forcing thousands to flee, including workers on major gas project
U.S. Special Operations forces and Mozambican marines look on as U.S. Special Operations Command Africa Deputy Commander Colonel Richard Schmidt speaks during a ceremony to launch a joint military training program in Maputo, March 15, 2021, to help Mozambique counter an ISIS-linked insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region. U.S. Embassy Maputo

The defense 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.

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.

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.

ISIS-linked militants seize Mozambique town, forcing thousands to flee, including workers on major gas project
A woman holds her child in a burned out area in the recently attacked village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia, in Mozambique's northeastern Cabo Delgado retion, August 24, 2019. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty

Although the extremist fighters launched their campaign in 2017, experts say they had begun mobilizing a decade earlier as disgruntled youths starting to practice a different type of Islam, 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.

First published on March 29, 2021 / 12:01 PM

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