Confusion reigns as convoy of fleeing civilians attacked in besieged Mozambique town

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Suspected Islamist insurgents attacked a convoy of fleeing civilians, including foreign workers, as fighting continued in a northern Mozambique town that is near a number of gas projects, security and diplomatic sources said.

At least one person was killed and a number injured in Friday's attack, according to the three sources and three organizations with employees inside a hotel where people have been taking refuge in the town of Palma.

Reuters could not independently verify the accounts. Most communications with Palma are down. Officials at Mozambique's foreign ministry, defence ministry and provincial government did not immediately respond to calls or had their phones switched off on Saturday. The national police said they were evaluating the situation, without providing further details.

Mozambique's government had said that security forces were working to restore order in Palma, which is adjacent to gas projects worth $60 billion led by oil majors including Total, after it came under a three-pronged attack on Wednesday.

Nearly 200 people had been sheltering in the Amarula Palma hotel during the attack, according to three diplomats and one of the organisations with people inside.

They included a Spanish resident and other foreigners who locked themselves in a protected room in the hotel, a Spanish diplomatic source told Reuters. Spain's foreign ministry confirmed there had been a Spanish citizen in Palma who managed to flee the town.

Before the ambush, rescue efforts had been underway with at least 20 people flown to safety in helicopters, said Lional Dyck, who runs Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private security company that works with Mozambique's government.

On Friday afternoon, some people attempted to escape in a convoy of vehicles but were ambushed just outside the hotel, according to Dyck, two diplomats and the organizations with people inside.

Dyck said his helicopters evacuated more than 20 survivors on Saturday.

Some still missing

It was not immediately clear how many people, if any, remained in the hotel and how many were missing. Contacted via Facebook on Saturday, the hotel said it could not give any information.

South Africa's foreign ministry said some of its citizens had been affected by attacks on foreign nationals on Friday. It did not elaborate.

Cindy Cooke, a South African whose 21-year-old stepson Francois van Niekerk is in Palma, was frantically trying to get information.

His family had not heard from him since Wednesday, though rescuers had been to his location on Saturday and he was not there, she said.

"It's scary. Being there is no joke. They (the insurgents) are ruthless, just ruthless," she said.

Portugal's foreign ministry said one of its nationals had been injured in the attack on Palma but did not specify the circumstances. The person had since been rescued, and its embassy in Maputo was working to identify other Portuguese nationals who needed support, the ministry said in an email.

New York-based Human Rights Watch spoke to seven people in the town before communications were cut on Wednesday. They described people fleeing as gunshots rang out, bodies in the streets and insurgents firing at both people and buildings, the group said in a statement.

The province of Cabo Delgado, where Palma is located, has been the target of a simmering Islamist insurgency since 2017.

The attack on Palma, which is a logistics hub and is used as a base for multiple international firms looking to cash in on one of the biggest gas finds in a decade, came just hours after Total announced the resumption of works at its site after halting them due to security issues.

The French energy giant said Saturday evening it was suspending its gas operations in northern Mozambique following the attack.

"The remobilization of the project that was envisaged at the beginning of the week is of course now suspended," Total said in a statement.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)