JOHANNESBURG – Fierce fighting for control of Mozambique's strategic northern town of Palma left beheaded bodies strewn in the streets Monday, with heavily armed rebels battling army, police and a private military outfit in several locations.
Thousands were estimated to be missing from the town, which held about 70,000 people before the attack began last Wednesday.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility Monday for the attack, saying it was carried out by the Islamic State Central Africa Province, according to the SITE extremist monitoring group.
The rebel claim said the insurgents now control Palma's banks, government offices, factories and army barracks, and that more than 55 people, including Mozambican army troops, Christians and foreigners were killed. It did not provide further detail on the dead.
Earlier this month the United States declared Mozambique's rebels to be a terrorist organization and announced it had sent military specialists to help train the Mozambican military to combat them.
Palma is the center of a multi-billion dollar investment by Total, the France-based oil and gas company, to extract liquified natural gas from offshore sites in the Indian Ocean. The gas deposits are estimated to be among the world's largest and the investment by Total and others is reported to be $20 billion, one of the largest in Africa.
The battle for Palma forced Total to evacuate its large, fortified site a few miles (kilometers) outside of the city.
The fighting spread across the town Monday, according to Lionel Dyck, director of the Dyck Advisory Group, a private military company contracted by the Mozambican police to help fight the rebels.