ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on a town in northern Mozambique last week that forced hundreds of foreign contractors to flee amid heavy fighting.
Police and local soldiers reportedly took control of most of Palma on Monday, after hundreds of Islamist insurgents who invaded the small port last week retreated into the surrounding forests and fields, leaving a trail of devastation.
In a statement released to state media, Isis claimed that insurgents killed more than 55 members of the local security forces and Christians, including those from “cross nations,” and destroyed government buildings and banks.
The total death toll in the attack is unclear, although Mozambican officials have confirmed the deaths of seven people and many witnesses have reported roads and beaches strewn with corpses.
Authorities in the southern African country said security forces were working to “remove pockets of resistance” after spending three days focusing on rescuing local and foreign citizens.
However, diplomats and other observers say insurgents retain control over much of Palma’s hinterland, which is a key logistics hub for foreign companies looking to tap vast reserves of natural gas. ‘worth $ 60 billion (£ 43 billion) in the province of Cabo Delgado.
Omar Saranga, spokesman for Mozambique’s defense and security forces, confirmed on Sunday that at least seven people were shot dead in an ambush on their convoy as they tried to flee Palma.
Hundreds of people, many of them foreigners, were evacuated from Palma over the weekend by helicopter and in a makeshift flotilla of local ships and boats, or fled. Tens of thousands of people also fled the attack by road, some walking up to 50 km to safety.
As most communications were interrupted, information on the situation remained fragmentary. Several security sources involved in the operations said 60 Palma-based people – most of them foreign citizens – who were missing have now been found. Others have reported operations underway to rescue up to 30 people who are believed to be still hiding in the forests between six and 12 miles from the city.
“The real question now is how the hell did this happen? How was that possible? It is clear that the insurgents have better intelligence than the government, ”said the owner of a South African-based private security company operating in and around Palma, who asked to remain anonymous.
Last week’s clashes came after a series of increasingly daring operations by activists from the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (ASWJ) movement.
The group retains control of much of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, 50 miles south of Palma, which it seized last year.
Palma is a base for many foreign entrepreneurs who have worked for a multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas project run by French energy company Total.
Security sources said insurgents infiltrated the area around the city before the attack, hiding weapons in caches. Many were disguised as members of the community and some wore army or police uniforms.
The city’s government infrastructure has been systematically targeted, with the local police station and military base overrun and destroyed, while at least two banks have been attacked, local security sources said.
A group of at least 120 insurgents came from areas north of Cabo Delgado, while a group of a similar size is believed to have crossed from Tanzania to reinforce the attackers on the second day of the assault, the sources said.
International Crisis Group analysts say the largest cohort of foreigners fighting in the ranks of the ASWJ is from Tanzania.
The three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado province has killed more than 2,600 people and displaced around 670,000 people, according to the UN.
Most observers believe the insurgents in Mozambique have limited international ties, although the ASWJ is seen as Isis affiliated with the United States.
“While Isis has been shown to have had contact with jihadists in Mozambique, it is not clear how close or meaningful their links are … Communication between groups and some coordination in the dissemination of propaganda do not suggest no particularly close ties, ”the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.
When the attack began last week, several hundred workers from South Africa, Britain and France sought refuge in hotels in the city, including around 200 under siege in the Amarula Hotel alone. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape by sea, a convoy of vehicles attempted to flee the besieged hotel and reach the coast before being ambushed twice.
Security call tapes examined by the Guardian described scenes of chaos as helicopters and boats run by several security companies attempted to extract those trapped in the city. A South African woman, Meryl Knox, told Reuters that her son Adrian Nel died in the ambush.
A stranger who was rescued said the town was overrun before it was rescued by security contractors from the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a private security firm.
“The Amarula Pavilion was completely surrounded and attacked by mortar and machine gun fire,” said one South African. “And these guys [from DAG] came with their helicopters and cleared the perimeter to get at least four tons of people out. Twenty-three of us. Luckily I was on the last helicopter as they stopped due to lack of fuel and daylight.
He added that people staying in Amarula had to “flee because the place was being attacked with heavy weapons”.
Lionel Dyck, a former South African soldier who heads DAG, told South African television he warned of such an attack some time ago. The company was recently accused in an Amnesty International report of killing civilians – a charge it denies.
“This is the time of the fighting season after the rain. It’s been on the cards for a long time, and we’re disappointed that the people of Palma have tried very little to protect themselves, ”said Dyck.
“This insurgency has grown from a group of well-armed bandits to [launching] a very well planned and coordinated attack. They were very effective [and pose] a pretty serious threat now.
On Sunday, boats started arriving in Pemba, a port 250 km south of Palma, carrying locals and foreigners. One was carrying around 1,300 people, a diplomat said.
Total said on Saturday it was canceling a planned resumption of construction at its $ 20 billion development after the attack and would cut its workforce to a “bare minimum.”
The company pulled the majority of its workforce in January due to security concerns.
Alexandre Raymakers, senior analyst for Africa at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, said the scale and intensity of the attack on Palma suggested meticulous planning, likely during a lull in fighting during the rainy season during the first three months of this year.
“It is a clear demonstration that [the insurgency] has steadily increased its military capabilities, gained sophistication and retains initiative. The last attack … is a major setback for [the government of Mozambique] and raises serious questions about its ability to ensure the safety of [gas] projects vital to the country’s long-term financial stability, ”Raymakers said.