JOHANNESBURG – Rebels fought the Mozambican army Sunday for the fifth straight day for control of the strategic northern town of Palma, as reports came in that dozens of civilians have been killed and bodies were littering the streets. The fate of scores of foreign energy workers was also unknown.
Some of the dead had been beheaded, according to Human Rights Watch. An attempt by expatriate workers to flee to safety came under heavy fire, causing many deaths, according to local reports.
The battle for Palma highlights the military and humanitarian crisis in this Southern African nation on the Indian Ocean. The three-year insurgency of the rebels, who are primarily disaffected young Muslim men, in the northern Cabo Delgado province has taken more than 2,600 lives and displaced an estimated 670,000 people, according to the U.N.
The attacks in Palma started Wednesday just hours after the French energy company Total announced that it would resume work outside the town on its huge natural gas project at Afungi, near Mozambique’s northeastern border with Tanzania. Earlier rebel attacks prompted Total in January to suspend work on the project to extract gas from offshore sites.
The Mozambican army has been fighting the rebels in several locations to regain control of Palma, Col. Omar Saranga, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, said Sunday in the capital of Maputo.
Hundreds of Palma residents, both local and foreign, have been rescued, he said, adding that the defense forces are battling “to contain the criminal attacks of terrorists and restore normality in Palma.”
Most communications in recent days with Palma and the surrounding area have been cut off by the insurgents, although some residents got messages out using satellite phones.
“(They said) they had seen bodies lying on the streets, that the sound of gunfire was ongoing. In fact, gunfire was recorded on the background as we spoke with them. And they were telling us that they were running for safety,” Zenaida Machado, the Human Rights Watch representative in Mozambique, told The Associated Press.