Fighting continues on the streets of Mozambique's coastal town of Palma, where dozens of people have died since Islamist militants attacked on 24 March.
“Last Wednesday, a group of terrorists sneaked into... Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenceless people,” said Omar Saranga, spokesman for Mozambique’s Ministry of Defence, on 28 March.
Security sources cited by The Guardian newspaper in the UK said insurgents infiltrated the area around the town before that attack, hiding weaponry in caches, with many disguised as community members and some wearing army or police uniforms.
The ministry — which had not commented on the Palma assault since confirming the attack on 25 March — said seven people died when a rescue convoy was ambushed when trying to evacuate people from the Amarula Palma hotel.
One South Africa national died in the ambush, according to reports, while a British national, reportedly working for a Dubai-based company, was also killed.
Despite international media focusing on expatriates, it is clear that locals have borne the brunt of the assault.
About 110,000 local people are thought to have been residing in Palma, many of whom had fled to the town after their villages elsewhere in Cabo Delgado were attacked.
Some fled to the coast, some north to the border with Tanzania, while others escaped to the bush and yet more were rescued from beaches by private vessels and taken to Pemba, Cabo Delgado’s capital, which already hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Saranga said security forces prioritised “the rescue of hundreds of citizens, nationals and foreigners".
The attacks began hours after Total and the government agreed to a gradual return to work at the $20 billion Mozambique LNG project, three months after an evacuation triggered by the insurgents’ first assault on Palma.
Announcing a suspension of work at the project, Total said “there are no victims among the staff employed on the site of the project in Afungi" and that it has reduced the work force to "a strict minimum level".
"Total’s absolute priority is to ensure the safety and security of the people who work on the project."
"Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area” and is "monitoring very closely the situation, in conjunction with the authorities and the local teams".
ACLED analyst Jasmine Opperman said: “This was not a surprise attack. There had been early warnings that Palma was going to be targeted." She claimed this information was passed on to foreign embassies and the Mozambican government, but the warnings were “ignored".
Cabo Ligado observatory, which tracks political violence in Mozambique, said the insurgents were fighting in central Palma on 24 March, before switching attention to Amarula Palma hotel where local civil servants and some 200 expatriates were holed up.
A few people at the hotel were evacuated by helicopter on the morning of 26 March, but by the afternoon, guests were plotting their own breakout.
“At least 16 vehicles carrying guests left the hotel in a convoy, planning to make a break for the beach. Insurgents ambushed the convoy shortly after it left the hotel, and only seven vehicles carrying around 100 passengers made it to the beach,” reported Cabo Ligado.
The convoy was ambushed, with multiple fatalities, perhaps as many as 50.
Ships, including a ferry usually in operation in Dar Es Salaam, docked in Palma to take on refugees, aided by smaller boats who were sometimes shot at by insurgents.
Those vessels sailed mainly to Pemba, with Cabo Ligado reporting that suspected insurgents were among the passengers and weapons were recovered.
Pinnacle News estimated that by 26 March, insurgents had burned two-thirds of Palma’s buildings and killed at least 21 members of the government security forces.