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Illustration by Security Management

Militant Attack in Mozambique Forces Thousands of Citizens to Flee

Tens of thousands of people fled the Mozambique town of Palma in the Cabo Delgado province after armed militants attacked the gas hub in late March.

Survivors said hundreds of Islamic State-linked militants quickly overran the town, killing dozens of civilians and trapping hundreds of foreign workers and contractors—many of whom were working on a liquefied natural gas project worth billions of dollars. The project is led by French energy group Total, which has since withdrawn all of its staff from the nearby Afungi natural gas site in northern Mozambique amid the conflict, Reuters reports. The project was suspended earlier this year because of violence.

Security forces have battled with the extremists since the initial attack on 24 March, but getting factual information out of the region has been challenging because the attackers cut communications to Palma when the attack began, according to Reuters.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack days after it began, saying that its local affiliate—the Islamic State central Africa Province—had killed more than 55 people, including Mozambican army troops, Christians, and foreigners, The New York Times reports. Militants ambushed a vehicle convoy shuttling people from a hotel to the beach, where boats were waiting to rescue townspeople. At least one South African and one Briton were killed, and multiple other foreign contractors and employees are missing.

South Africa’s defense force will assist with repatriating any nationals who wish to return to South Africa, Bloomberg reports.

Militants still control much of Palma, including the town’s banks, government offices, and factories, according to a statement from the Islamic State. A Mozambican government-organized trip to the outskirts of Palma on 30 March came under gunfire. The nation's Defense Ministry acknowledged last week that the military was still attempting to “eliminate some pockets of resistance.”

Analysts say the ambush marks a new level of boldness from insurgents—especially as it came so close to an international gas project that has been prioritized and highly protected by the Mozambican government.

The full extent of the violence remains unclear; civilians fled into the forests surrounding Palma, either hiding or walking long distances to nearby towns, Reuters reports.

International aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) said that people fleeing violence reported seeing the bodies of other civilians who had died of hunger or dehydration. One person reported seeing people killed by crocodiles or perishing in deep mud. Around 50,000 people are living in camps dedicated to people displaced by violence. MSF teams have begun preparing for additional arrivals—as of 1 April, around 400 people had reached the camp in Montepuez, including more than 100 children.

An estimated 10,000 people sought refuge in a village within the concession area of Total’s natural gas project, believing that the heavy security around the project will help protect them, according to Bloomberg. Total supplied 15 tons of food for the displaced people, and it arranged flights and a ferry to evacuate people from the area.

Since 2017, infrequent but violent raids by Islamic extremists have killed more than 2,600 people in the Cabo Delgado province—half of them civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 670,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Cabo Delgado.

This incident, the latest in a long string of escalations, has humanitarian groups warning of a looming catastrophe in the region. While the local militancy is born out of borrowed Islamic State iconography, it is largely fueled by marginalization, resentment of foreign workers, and poverty.  

“What started as a slapdash insurgency armed with blunt weapons is metastasizing into a gun-toting group of at least hundreds of fighters that can mount coordinated attacks, seeming acting on foreknowledge of the Mozambican army’s movements," according to The Washington Post.