JOHANNESBURG – Jihadi rebels are fighting to capture Palma, a strategic town in northern Mozambique where fighting continued Thursday after launching a three-pronged assault on the center a day earlier.
The town in Cabo Delgado province was attacked “in three directions” by “terrorists,” according to an official with Mozambique’s defense ministry.
The coordinated attacks began just hours after Total, the France-based oil and gas company, announced that it would resume work on its multi-billion-dollar liquified natural gas project just a few kilometers outside Palma, which is near Mozambique's border with Tanzania.
Mozambique’s defense and security forces are “working tirelessly to reestablish security and order as fast as possible" and will “do everything to guarantee the security” of the local population and of the nearby “economic projects,” Ministry of Defense spokesman Col. Omar Saranga said at a news press conference in the capital, Maputo. He said he didn't yet have information on casualties or damage caused by the attack.
Palma had been largely cut off from the rest of Cabo Delgado province for several weeks, as the rebels made road access unsafe, leaving the airport and the seaport as the only routes in and out of the town.
The Islamic extremist rebels already hold the port town of Mocimboa da Praia, which they captured in August. Since then, the insurgents have seized nearby villages. The jihadis have beheaded scores of people, causing more than 670,000 people to flee their homes, creating a humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique.
In their assault on Palma, the extremists attacked the airport and two other locations, Saranga said. Residents fled in all directions, but mostly toward Palma's beaches, according to sources who spoke to local news media, including Zitamar News and Pinnacle News.
There were about 100 attackers, reported Pinnacle, citing its network of local sources. Government helicopters flew overhead but didn't open fire because of the difficulty of differentiating attackers from civilians, it reported.
On the ground, the attackers went into the center of Palma, robbing banks, particularly the Standard Bank branch. The Amarula Hotel was also attacked, according to multiple accounts.
Shortly before the attack, Total had issued a statement saying it would gradually reopen its operations on the Afungi peninsula near Palma. It said the government of Mozambique had declared the 4-kilometer (nearly 2 1/2-mile) radius surrounding the gas project a special security area. Palma town is just two kilometers (over a mile) from the edge of the project's security area. Total had suspended its operations and evacuated hundreds of staff and contractors from the site in January after the insurgent attacks got close to its construction site.
Before the attack, food supplies had recently arrived in Palma by sea, both through commercial operations and in aid from the World Food Program. In the past week, a consignment of fuel also arrived to alleviate a long-running shortage, residents told The Associated Press.
Tom Bowker reported from Uzes, France.