When Islamist terrorists attacked the town of Palma earlier this week, few suspected a protracted battle for control of the region would ensue. That is just what is happening, however, as Mozambique government forces attempt to repel an unknown number of insurgents in a conflict that has now spanned nearly four days and drawn in helicopter gunships.
Some 180 foreign workers remain trapped in a hotel in the town, which is near to the largest liquified natural gas development in Africa. They are currently besieged by what was originally estimated to be 100 insurgents, but is now being described as “several hundred” armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
As the smoke begins to lift from the conflict, a difference can be noted in the narratives being delivered by the Mozambique government and the straggling civilians on the ground. That difference is one of body count.
The government has thus far stated that one person was killed when a convoy of fleeing civilians was ambushed on the road, and highlighted that at least 20 more were successfully evacuated by helicopter. A colonel for the defense ministry acknowledged that it is currently impossible to tell how many have died in the town itself, however.
The scattered reports of civilians to the few international journalists present paint a darker picture.
“Almost the entire town was destroyed,” an anonymous worker said, according to Deutsche Welle. “Many people are dead.”
New reports from locals state that there are many bodies lying in the streets and that the insurgents were “killing everybody.”
Estimates of the destruction are rough at best, but currently speculate that roughly two-thirds of the town has been razed and dozens have been killed.
Government security forces are still attempting to secure the area which was attacked from three directions Wednesday. It is just the latest in a conflict that has been boiling over since 2017 and has displaced some 700,000 people and killed another 2,600.
Local forces reportedly attempted to fend off the attack but were forced to flee within the first few hours of fighting. It is now believed that the insurgents are attempting to capture Palma wholesale. The town has already been forced to rely on aid packages for food and other supplies due to the fact that the Islamists control most of the surrounding roads and previously captured a nearby port. Though it is difficult to ascertain the extent of the insurgent push, as phone service in the area was cut during the first day of fighting, possibly by the government.
The attack is most likely being carried out by the loosely organized Ansar al-Sunna, locally referred to as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) but which a distinct sect from the Somali terrorist organization of the same name. The group has a history of promoting horrific violence including beheadings and torture, and was recently designated as an ISIS-affiliate by the US government.
It is currently unclear to what extent, if any, the small detachment of US Special Forces deployed to the region earlier this month are playing in current operations.