The key city in northern Mozambique, Palma, was virtually deserted on Monday, its residents fleeing by road, boat or on foot as ISIS claimed control after a long attack.
Activists linked to ISIS attacked the city on Wednesday, escalating an insurgency that has spread bloodily across northern Mozambique since 2017.
Dozens of people, according to ISIS and authorities, were killed in what witnesses describe as a coordinated attack, and an unknown number remained missing.
It is the closest raid to date of a multibillion-dollar gas project under construction on a peninsula just 10 kilometers (six miles) away, by French Total and other energy giants.
“Caliphate soldiers have seized the strategic city of Palma,” ISIS said in a statement posted on its Telegram channels.
He claimed responsibility for his offensive aimed at military and government targets, killing dozens of soldiers and “members of Crusader states”, his term for Western nationals.
The city of 75,000 people in the province of Cabo Delgado was virtually emptied of its population, said civil society activist Adriano Nuvunga.
“The violence has stopped, but it is believed that some of the insurgents have withdrawn and some are still in hiding,” he told UKTN.
Witnesses said dozens of fighters snuck into the town before the attack.
“The attackers arrived a few days earlier and hid in the homes of residents they paid,” said a resident of Palma, speaking from Mueda, where he had taken refuge.
“The attacks started along the main roads leading to Palma,” he said.
As police rushed to try to repel the invaders, fighters inside the town mounted their own attack, witnesses said.
The United Nations condemned the Palma aggression and said it was coordinating closely with local authorities to provide assistance to those affected by the violence.
“We are deeply concerned by the still evolving situation in Palma, where armed attacks began on March 24, killing dozens of people,” said UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.
Struggle to survive
Many survivors said they walked for days through the forest to take refuge in Mueda, 180 kilometers (112 miles) to the south, where they arrived limping with swollen feet.
“Many people fell from fatigue and could not continue to walk, especially the elderly and children,” said an escapee from Mueda who did not wish to be named.
Some survivors fled to the gas project site, from where they are sent by boat to the regional capital Pemba.
The government said dozens of people were killed in the attack on the militants, including seven people ambushed during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had taken refuge.
A South African was among those killed, his family said.
“The attacks began shortly after a large ship arrived with food,” an escapee told UKTN via an online message, referring to food aid deliveries to the coastal town furthest north.
“They attacked the city and brought in trucks to transport the food.”
Witnesses told UKTN they first targeted banks and the police station before spreading through the city.
Thousands of fugitives arrived on boats Monday in Pemba, the provincial capital about 250 km to the south, according to local sources.
According to sources from the international humanitarian aid agency, between 6,000 and 10,000 people were waiting to be evacuated.
The attack forced expatriate workers and locals to seek temporary refuge at a heavily guarded gas plant on the nearby Afungi peninsula.
“A significant number of civilians rescued from Palma are also transported to the Afungi site, where they receive humanitarian and logistical support,” Total said in a statement.
The Sea Star, a large passenger ship, arrived in Pemba on Sunday with around 1,400 people, most of them workers, including Total employees.
Pemba already has hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by the Islamist insurgency, which has uprooted nearly 700,000 from their homes across the vast province.
The latest attack “will spark yet another attack on internally displaced people,” said Chance Briggs of UK charity Save the Children.
The defense ministry said on Sunday evening that the security forces had “stepped up their operational strategy” to contain the attacks and restore normalcy in Palma.
In Portugal, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said his government was monitoring the situation with “great concern”, adding that he had been in contact with President Filipe Nyusi.
The violent and calculated raid broke a three-month hiatus in Islamist attacks largely attributed to counterinsurgency tactics and the rainy season from January to March.
Although the extremists launched their campaign in 2017, experts say they began to mobilize a decade earlier as disgruntled young people began practicing a stricter form of Islam, upset that locals drink alcohol and enter mosques wearing shorts and shoes.
Their bloody campaign has left at least 2,600 dead, half of them civilians.
The insurgents are known locally as al-Shabaaab, although they are not believed to have any links with the Somali jihadist organization of that name.
The US State Department said this month that the group allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS in April 2018. It named its leader Abu Yasir Hassan and declared him a global terrorist.