Islamist militants have seized control of a town in northern Mozambique, killing several people including at least one foreign worker, and forcing France's Total to suspend operations at a huge gas project.
Militants began the attack on the town of Palma in the northern province of Cabo Delgado on Wednesday, forcing nearly 200 people including foreign gas workers to evacuate a hotel where they had taken refuge, security sources said Saturday.
The assault came shortly after Total announced it would gradually resume work in the area, which had been suspended following earlier attacks.
Local media reported at least seven workers were killed in the latest violence, including a South African.
None of Total staff were killed in the incident but the "remobilization of the project that was envisaged at the beginning of the week" was suspended, the company said in a statement.
Speaking on the phone late Friday, after he was evacuated to Afungi, one worker said most of the town had been destroyed and "many people are dead".
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".
The Mozambique government has not given an update of the attack since Thursday.
Total said it was trusted the Mozambican security forces who were working to take back control of the area.
- 'Government forces have withdrawn' -
The militant attack on Palma, a coastal town of 75,000 people, is the closest yet to the major gas project during a three-year Islamist insurgency across Mozambique's north. Gas exports from the site are not expected until 2024 at the earliest.
"Government forces have withdrawn from Palma so the town has been taken," one security source said. Another source confirmed militants had taken the town though fighting in the area was ongoing.
Palma is about 10 kilometres from the liquefied natural gas project located on the Afungi peninsula on the Indian Ocean coast near the Tanzania border.
Jihadist militants staged the surprise raid, sending terrified residents into nearby forests, while gas and government workers sought shelter at the hotel.
Defence ministry spokesman Omar Saranga declined to comment, only urging people to "remain calm and follow the rescue instructions given by the authorities".
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, said.
"The 17-car convoy with people rescued from Amarula (hotel) was attacked soon after it left. Some have been killed but many managed to escape," the source said.
Those remaining in the hotel went to nearby military barracks on the beachfront and were ferried out on boats to an undisclosed location, the source said.
"At first it was thought they had been killed... They were around 100 people," the source added.
Cellphone communication with Palma has been disrupted since the assault began.
A South African government source told AFP in Johannesburg that one of their nationals had been killed in the violence.
- 'Meticulously planned' -
On Wednesday, Total, the principal investor in the $20 billion (16.9 billion euro) gas project, had said it was gradually resuming work, after it had suspended all construction work in January due to a spate of attacks.
Six other international firms including ExxonMobil are also present in the region.
"The scale and intensity of the attack on Palma required meticulous planning, suggesting that group used a lull in the fighting during rainy season in the first the months of 2021 to prepare a concentrated high profile attack," said Alexander Raymakers, senior Africa Analyst at the UK-based risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
In statement on Thursday the defence ministry said the group had "attacked simultaneously from three directions" including from the local airfield.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
But recent attacks have increasingly been claimed by the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), affiliated with the Islamic State group.
The extremists fighters have since October 2017, raided villages and towns across Mozambique's north, causing nearly 700,000 to flee their homes.
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).