Throughout the three-day siege, insurgents set government buildings ablaze and detonated explosives at three banks and the health clinic in town, according to a private security contractor in East Africa with knowledge of the attack who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Several witnesses to the attack saw bodies on the streets and people fleeing the town as the sound of gunfire rang out on Wednesday, according to a investigators at Human Rights Watch who spoke with seven people in Palma before communications were cut.
“Armed groups’ horrific abuses pose a threat to civilians throughout the region,” Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Mozambique authorities should make restoring security a top priority in Cabo Delgado province.”
The attack came hours after Mozambique’s government and Total, the French oil and gas company, announced they would resume work on the gas project near Palma after the company had suspended operations and evacuated some staff members following a string of insurgent attacks earlier this year.
Those attacks have become increasingly brutal since the insurgency began in 2017, when insurgents ambushed police stations in the area. In recent years, the militants have attacked villages, destroyed schools and hospitals, and beheaded hundreds of people. The group itself has also grown from a few dozen fighters to as many as 800 militants.
At the same time, government forces have been implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrarily detaining civilians and executing dozens of people suspected of belonging to the insurgency, according to Human Rights Watch.
Earlier this month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity. In 2019 the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, which also has a presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though it is unclear how closely the militants are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Eric Schmitt and John Ismay contributed reporting from Washington, D.C. Charles Mangwiro contributed reporting from Maputo, Mozambique.