A new report by Amnesty International alleges that the rescue operation by a private security company displayed racial segregation.
As the town of 75,000 people was stormed by Daesh-linked militants in late March in northern Mozambique, law enforcement agencies gave priority to white people during the rescue operation and left the black locals exposed to danger.
Amnesty's report is based on the testimonies of more than a dozen witnesses.
On March 24, when the militants swooped in on the coastal town of Palma, around 200 people, made up of mainly civil servants and foreign workers, took shelter in the beachfront Amarula Palma Hotel. Among the people the police and counter-insurgency units sought to rescue were about 20 white workers who were holed up in the hotel, according to Amnesty.
For the rescue operation, the Mozambican government asked Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a private South African mercenary group, to help them fight the militants and save the holed up civilians.
Much to the dismay of the local black population, the Amnesty report quoting eyewitnesses said that the hotel manager and DAG operatives prioritised the safety of white contractors over local black people. DAG however rejects the claim.
One survivor told Amnesty International: “We were about 220 people trapped there in the hotel – we [local Black people] were the majority, and the whites were supposed to be about 20. After the rescue and escape, we were about 170 people still alive. Most of the whites were rescued by helicopters before we left the hotel by car.”
Another survivor said: “We didn't want all white people to be rescued, because we knew that if all the whites left, we would be left there to die. We heard them talking about the plan to take all the whites and leave the Blacks.”
The witnesses recalled that the manager of the hotel took his two German Shepherd dogs to safety via helicopter, leaving people behind.
Deprose Muchena, the human rights watchdog's regional director for east and southern Africa, said "these are alarming allegations that the rescue plan was racially segregated".
"Abandoning people during an armed assault simply because of the colour of their skin is racism, and violates the obligation to protect civilians," he said, adding that for the hotel manager to "choose to rescue his dogs instead of people is also extremely shocking".
The raid by the Daesh-linked militants marked a major escalation by the insurgent group that has wreaked havoc across Cabo Delgado province for over three years.
The attack left dozens of people dead and around 30,000 people displaced, according to UN refugee agency figures. The violence pushed France's Total to suspend work on a nearby multi-billion-dollar gas project in the region where locals have long complained about the lack of infrastructure and jobs.
The group is also locally referred to as Al Shabab, even though it has no connections with the Somali movement of the same name. It was essentially formed as a religious sect but later it pledged allegiance to Daesh.
The group emerged in the northernmost province of Mozambique, Cabo Delgado. Muslims make up 20 percent of the total population of Mozambique but are dominant in Cabo Delgado, representing 58 percent of the local community. The experts say long-standing dissatisfaction among Muslims and discrimination against them by the central government are the root cause of the insurgency.
Especially in Capo Delgado, Muslim residents have lost their properties, particularly because of the arrival of international companies in the province, which became popular among foreign investors soon after the discovery of massive gas and oil reserves in the region.