JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Suspected Islamist insurgents seized control of much of a town in Mozambique on Saturday after a three-day siege that has left at least several people dead and hundreds of other civilians unaccounted for as government forces try to regain control, according to private security contractors in East Africa and news reports.
Nearly 200 people, including dozens of foreign workers, sought shelter inside a hotel in the town, Palma, after nearly 300 militants flooded into the area on Wednesday, destroying much of the town and sending hundreds of other residents fleeing into nearby areas.
On Friday afternoon, insurgents attacked a convoy of civilians as they attempted to flee the hotel, killing several people and injuring dozens of others.
By Saturday evening, the insurgents had surrounded four of the town’s hotels that house foreigners who work with international gas companies in the area, according to private security contractors.
Most telephone lines and communications in Palma were cut off as the siege unfolded, but the contractors feared scores of people could have been killed.
The attack is the latest in a brutal war unfolding in the country’s north involving insurgent groups believed to be linked to the Islamic State. The conflict has left at least 2,000 civilians dead and displaced 670,000 more in recent years, according to humanitarian groups.
Over the last year, the militant group has grown in strength and seized large swaths of territory across the northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, which is home to some of the world’s largest gas reserves.
The siege this week is the closest yet the insurgents have come to a multibillion dollar gas project in the area, operated by international energy companies, including Total, and the attack reflects an alarming escalation of the insurgent threat.
The attack on Palma began late Wednesday afternoon when around 100 militants — divided into two groups — made their way into the area on foot, according to private security contractors in East Africa.
After establishing some control, around 100 additional insurgents descended on the area, attacking villages along the way and cutting off roads leading into the town center that government forces could use to send in reinforcements, the contractors said. Insurgents then hunted down government officials and attacked government buildings.
As the attack unfolded, nearly 200 people took refuge inside the Amarula Palma hotel — a popular guesthouse with foreign gas workers — while Mozambique’s security forces and private security contractors with a South Africa-based military company tried to repel the insurgents.
On Friday afternoon, dozens of people who were trapped inside tried to escape in 17-vehicle convoy but were ambushed outside the hotel. Only seven vehicles managed to escape the town, the private security contractors said. At least several people were killed, including a South African national, and dozens of others were injured, according to news reports.
Around 20 people were evacuated by helicopters on Saturday morning, according to news reports. It is unclear how many people remained trapped inside the town Saturday night.
Unconfirmed news reports and accounts on social media said that some people made it to the beach, where boats carried them to safety.
Mozambique defense officials did not respond to multiple calls on Saturday. In a statement on Thursday, officials said the country’s security forces were “pursuing the enemy’s movement and are working tirelessly to restore security and order as quickly as possible.”
Throughout the three-day siege, insurgents set government buildings ablaze and detonated explosives at three banks and the health clinic in town, according to a private security contractor in East Africa with knowledge of the attack who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Several witnesses to the attack saw bodies on the streets and people fleeing the town as the sound of gunfire rang out on Wednesday, according to a investigators at Human Rights Watch who spoke with seven people in Palma before communications were cut.
“Armed groups’ horrific abuses pose a threat to civilians throughout the region,” Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Mozambique authorities should make restoring security a top priority in Cabo Delgado province.”
The attack came hours after Mozambique’s government and Total, the French oil and gas company, announced they would resume work on the gas project near Palma after the company had suspended operations and evacuated some staff members following a string of insurgent attacks earlier this year.
Those attacks have become increasingly brutal since the insurgency began in 2017, when insurgents ambushed police stations in the area. In recent years, the militants have attacked villages, destroyed schools and hospitals, and beheaded hundreds of people. The group itself has also grown from a few dozen fighters to as many as 800 militants.
At the same time, government forces have been implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrarily detaining civilians and executing dozens of people suspected of belonging to the insurgency, according to Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity. In 2019 the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, which also has a presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though it is unclear how closely the militants are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this month, U.S. Special Forces soldiers began training Mozambican troops in an effort to bolster the country’s counterinsurgency operations. On Saturday, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the United States to increase that support.
“Reports of the ongoing terrorist attacks in Palma, Mozambique describe a blood bath,” he said. “The U.S. and our partners must do more to combat this threat before ISIS controls more territory and slaughters more innocent civilians.”
He added: “We cannot let ISIS control territory like they did in the last decade.”
Eric Schmitt and John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. Charles Mangwiro contributed reporting from Maputo, Mozambique.