Tens of thousands feared displaced in deadly attack on Mozambique gas town

Residents scattered into bush or caught boats after Islamic State-linked insurgents attacked Palma

31 March 2021 - 08:29 By Manuel Mucari and Emma Rumney
The town of Palma in northern Mozambique has come under attack by Islamic State-linked insurgents
The town of Palma in northern Mozambique has come under attack by Islamic State-linked insurgents

Tens of thousands of people are feared to have been displaced after a deadly attack by Islamic State-linked insurgents on a gas hub town in northern Mozambique, aid agencies said, as rescuers searched for survivors.

Many of those fleeing were believed to have scattered into dense forest or attempted to escape by boat when Palma came under attack last Wednesday, aid workers told Reuters. Some waded out to sea to hide, one survivor said.

Mozambique’s government has confirmed dozens of deaths, including at least seven killed when militants ambushed a convoy of vehicles trying to escape a besieged hotel on Friday. Witnesses have described bodies in the streets, some of them beheaded.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it continued to receive reports of clashes in Palma and nearby areas on Tuesday.

Thousands of people have been fleeing attacks by heavily armed rebel forces in Palma, Mozambique, since March 24 2021. The town is home to a major gas project of French company Total. Locals and foreigners have been fleeing by ferry and boat and arriving in the port city of Pemba. The government has yet to re-establish control of the area. Here's what we know so far about the conflict in Mozambique.

It’s a real humanitarian catastrophe
Lola Castro, World Food Programme regional director

“It’s a real humanitarian catastrophe,” Lola Castro, World Food Programme (WFP) regional director, told Reuters.

“People are scattered all over the place — by boat, by road.”

Reuters has not been able to independently verify the accounts from Palma, a logistics hub for adjacent gas projects worth around $60bn led by oil majors including Total. Most communications to the town were cut on Wednesday. Phone calls to Mozambique’s government and security officials went unanswered on Tuesday.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack on Monday via its Amaq news agency.

A US official said it may show the group’s increasing “brazenness” in Mozambique, where militants are now seeking to hold towns.

Portugal will send 60 soldiers to help train armed forces in Cabo Delgado next month, state news agency Lusa reported on Tuesday. However, a defence ministry spokesperson told Reuters a bilateral agreement on the training mission was still being finalised.


The district in which Palma is located is home to around 110,000 people, according to UN estimates. They include about 43,600 who sought shelter there after fleeing attacks elsewhere in Cabo Delgado province, which has been home to a simmering Islamist insurgency since 2017.

Many came to Palma looking for safety, and they have left Palma without any
Jonathan Whittall, director of analysis Medecins Sans Frontieres

“Many came to Palma looking for safety, and they have left Palma without any,” said Jonathan Whittall, director of analysis at international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Some would likely be trying to make their way south to the provincial capital Pemba by boat, aid workers said, while others were headed north through the bush towards the Tanzania boarder.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 3,360 displaced people had been registered in Pemba and districts surrounding Palma, the International Organisation for Migration said.

However, many more were still believed stranded, said the UN and aid agencies.

A group arriving in Pemba told the UN refugee agency that their initial attempts to seek safety in Tanzania were thwarted by a difficult river crossing.

WFP had flown doctors into the Palma area and ferried hundreds of people to safety, including aid workers, Castro said. However, three humanitarian workers remained unaccounted for.

A private security firm contracted by the government and companies with personnel in the town were also searching for survivors.

Lionel Dyck, who runs Dyck Advisory Group, a SA firm that works with Mozambique’s government, said his helicopters had come under heavy fire from insurgents wielding AK-47s, machine guns and mortars as they plucked people from the bush.

He said most were being flown to a camp outside Palma used by the gas developments.

A ferry carrying around 1,000 people, including some injured, was expected to leave the project site for Pemba on Tuesday, a diplomat and another person familiar with the operation told Reuters.