JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As gunshots rang out across a port town in northeastern Mozambique on Friday afternoon, nearly 200 people sheltering inside the Amarula Palma hotel confronted a devastating reality: The armed insurgents outside the hotel’s doors had all but taken control of the town and there was no one coming to save them any time soon.
For two days, hundreds of insurgents in the gas-rich region had been laying siege to the coastal town of Palma, firing indiscriminately at civilians, hunting down government officials and setting buildings ablaze as security forces tried in vain to repel them.
The violence sent thousands of people fleeing, with some rushing to the beach, where a ragtag fleet of cargo ships, tugboats and fishing vessels was ferrying people to safety.
But at the hotel, with daylight hours dwindling, the local residents and foreign gas workers who remained faced an impossible choice: Either wait inside, defenseless, for a promised evacuation in the morning, or try to make it to the beach.
campaign of violence the militants have unleashed. Insurgents have beheaded civilians in summary executions and left homes, schools and health centers destroyed.
Many analysts say that the insurgency is a home grown-crisis and that the group only maintains loose ties to the Islamic State. Still, the jihadist rallying cry has provided a banner under which mostly impoverished people angry about an array of local grievances can coalesce. It has also inspired the use of the international terrorist network’s brutal tactics.
Few journalists and human rights investigators have been able to report firsthand on the conflict from Mozambique, where government forces and private security contractors have also been implicated in abuses against civilians. And as the attack on Palma unfolded last week, phone lines and other communications in the town were cut by insurgents.
Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the department of International Development at the London School of Economics who is an expert on Mozambique.
The Mozambique government guaranteed Total that it would secure the development, and Total said it would not hire private security companies like the Dyck Advisory Group, which was recently implicated in a report by Amnesty International of killing civilians.
“This attack is arguably the most significant yet, given that foreigners also came under the cross hairs of insurgents and because Palma is the gateway to the gas megaprojects,” said Dino Mahtani, deputy director of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group, who recently visited Mozambique. “It will lead to more pressure on Mozambique for hard military responses, perhaps at the expense of other policies that should still be on the table.”
Earlier this month, the United States formally designated the insurgency, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, as a global terrorist entity after the group became identified with the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province in 2019.