Dozens of people are still unaccounted for following a deadly attack in Cabo Delgado province's Palma town even as thousands of survivors are being evacuated to provincial capital Pemba, sources say.

Militants have seized control of the northern Mozambique town of Palma, near a huge gas project involving French oil major Total and other international energy companies, security sources say.
Militants have seized control of the northern Mozambique town of Palma, near a huge gas project involving French oil major Total and other international energy companies, security sources say. (AFP)

Rebels have fought to control a strategic town in northern Mozambique for the fifth straight day, as reports came in that dozens of civilians have been killed and bodies were littering the streets of Palma. 

Dozens of people have been killed, a spokesman for the defence and security forces said on Sunday, including seven people killed when their convoy of cars was ambushed as they tried to escape.

Hundreds of other people, both locals and foreigners, have been rescued from the town, located near gas projects worth $60billion, spokesman Omar Saranga told journalists. 

The fate of scores of foreign workers was also unknown on Sunday.

Some of the dead had been beheaded, according to Human Rights Watch.

The battle for Palma highlights the military and humanitarian crisis in this Southern African nation on the Indian Ocean. 

The three-year insurgency of the rebels, who are primarily disaffected young Muslim men, in the northern Cabo Delgado province has taken more than 2,600 lives and displaced an estimated 670,000 people, according to the UN.

Foreign workers targeted 

Most communications with Palma and the surrounding area have been cut off by the insurgents, although some in the besieged town got messages out using satellite phones. The town is where many contractors have been working for a multi-billion-dollar liquified natural gas project by the French energy company Total.

Many Palma 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. 

Martin Ewi, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies, said that "over 100" people were still unaccounted for. 

"That's what we know so far, but it so confusing".

While local media reports said British workers may also have been caught in the attack, the UK'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.

Escapees ambushed 

On Saturday a band of them in 17 vehicles drove together to try to reach the beach where they hoped to be rescued. The convoy came under heavy fire and only 7 vehicles reached the beach and several people in even those vehicles had been killed, according to local reports and messages sent by survivors.

The beach remained under insurgent fire, preventing rescue efforts from air or sea, according to the reports. The Hotel Amarula remained under attack and it’s not known what happened to those in the 10 vehicles that did not reach the coast.

The assault on Palma started on Wednesday after many rebels infiltrated the town, according to Mozambique News Reports and Clippings

The coordinated attacks hit Palma "in three directions," including the airport, Mozambique's Defence Ministry said.

Mozambique's defence and security forces are "working tirelessly to re-establish security and order as fast as possible" and will "do everything to guarantee the security" of the local population and of the "economic projects," Ministry of Defence spokesman Colonel Omar Saranga said  onThursday in the capital, Maputo.

French firm suspends work

The attacks in Palma started just hours after Total announced that it would resume work outside the town on its natural gas project, near Mozambique’s northeastern border with Tanzania. 

Earlier rebel attacks prompted Total in January to suspend work on the project to extract gas from offshore sites. It was preparing to gradually resume work on its operations on the Afungi peninsula a few kilometres outside of Palma.

The fresh rebel violence brings into question the fate of the gas project, one of Africa's biggest private investments. Total paid nearly $4 billion for a 26.5 percent stake in the project in 2019. It had planned to start gas shipments in 2024 but the deteriorating security situation has made that goal unlikely.

Total issued a statement on Saturday saying that due to the latest rebel attack it had "obviously" suspended all its operations in the Afungi peninsula. It said that none of its staff at the Afungi site were victims of the attack.

"Total expresses its sympathy and support to the people of Palma, to the relatives of the victims and those affected by the tragic events of the past days," said the statement. 

"Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area."

Rebels active in Cabo Delgado province

Mozambique's rebels already hold the port town of Mocimboa da Praia, 50 kilometres south of Palma, which they captured in August.

Mozambique's insurgents are known locally as Al Shabab, although they do not have any known connection to Somalia's rebels of that name. 

The rebels have been active in Cabo Delgado province since 2017 but their attacks became much more frequent and deadly in the past year.

Source: AP