Islamist militants have seized control of the town of Palma in Mozambique's northern province of Cabo Delgado, killing several people, including a foreign worker.
The army has been fighting the rebels for five days straight, as reports came in that bodies were 'littering the streets.' According to Human Rights Watch, some of the dead had been beheaded.
A spokesman for Mozambique's Defense Ministry, Omar Saranga, confirmed that dozens of people have been killed in the attack, including seven who were killed during an ambush on an attempted rescue.
"Last Wednesday, a group of terrorists sneaked into ... Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenseless people," Saranga told a news conference in the capital Maputo.
The spokesman also said that the military was in the process of pushing back the militants and trying to rescue civilians caught up in the violence.
Nearly 200 people had been sheltering in the Amarula Palma hotel during the attack, three diplomats and one of the organizations with people inside told Reuters news agency.
Around 80 people were taken away from the hotel in military trucks on Friday, but some of the vehicles were ambushed, an official from a private security firm involved in the rescue operation, told AFP news agency.
It was not immediately clear how many people, if any, remained in the hotel and how many were missing. The status of hundreds of foreign workers was also unknown.
Security concerns in the region
Fighting in the region began on Wednesday, hours after the French energy giant Total announced that it would gradually resume work at its $20 billion (€16.9 billion) liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the area after halting operations in January due to security concerns.
Human Rights Watch said witnesses had spoken of seeing "bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the ... fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings."
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. But local officials have blamed an insurgent group known as both Al-Shabaab and Al-Sunna wa Jama'a, which has links to the "Islamic State" militant network.
Al-Shabaab is a different group than the one fighting in Somalia.
DW correspondent Adrian Kriesch said he had heard the most "gruesome" stories in recent months of similar attacks by Al-Shabaab, where fleeing residents had witnessed beheadings and children kidnapped.
"It is not even clear what this group really wants. It's likely that it's much more about power and access to resources than it is about religion," he added.
What did Total say?
DPA News agency reported on Sunday that Total had evacuated 1,000 workers from near Palma, where it has a logistics hub adjacent to gas projects worth $60 billion.
It said a vessel to evacuate them arrived in the port city of Pemba by mid-morning.
Total said a day earlier that no project staff members were among the victims of the fighting, it added.
But the company "has decided to reduce to a strict minimum level the workforce on the Afungi site."
"Total trusts the government of Mozambique whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area," it said.
Kriesch, meanwhile, told DW that any delayed return of Total's operations "would be a disaster for the development of Mozambique."
Efforts to rescue foreign nationals
Portugal's Foreign Ministry said one of its nationals had been injured in the fighting but did not specify the circumstances.
The person had since been rescued, and its embassy in Maputo was working to identify other Portuguese nationals who needed support, the ministry said.
South Africa's Foreign Ministry said some of its citizens had been affected by the attacks on foreign nationals. It did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, Spain's Foreign Ministry confirmed there had been a Spanish citizen in Palma who managed to flee the town.
Restoring order in Palma a huge challenge
Mozambique's government said on Thursday that security forces were working to restore order in Palma.
In a statement, the country's Defense Ministry said the group had "attacked simultaneously from three directions" including from the local airfield.
The extremists have since October 2017 raided villages and towns across Mozambique's north, causing nearly 700,000 to flee their homes.
Beheadings have been a hallmark of attacks by the jihadis.
The violence has left at least 2,600 people dead, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).
sri/sms (AFP, Reuters)