JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Suspected Islamist insurgents seized control of much of a town in Mozambique on Saturday after a three-day siege that has left at least several people dead and hundreds of other civilians unaccounted for as government forces try to regain control, according to private security contractors in East Africa and news reports.
Nearly 200 people, including dozens of foreign workers, sought shelter inside a hotel in the town, Palma, after nearly 300 militants flooded into the area on Wednesday, destroying much of the town and sending hundreds of other residents fleeing into nearby areas.
On Friday afternoon, insurgents attacked a convoy of civilians as they attempted to flee the hotel, killing several people and injuring dozens of others.
in a brutal war unfolding in the country’s north involving insurgent groups believed to be linked to the Islamic State. The conflict has left at least 2,000 civilians dead and displaced 670,000 more in recent years, according to humanitarian groups.
Over the last year, the militant group has grown in strength and seized large swaths of territory across the northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, which is home to some of the world’s largest gas reserves.
The siege this week is the closest yet the insurgents have come to a multibillion-dollar gas project in the area, operated by international energy companies, including Total, and the attack reflects an alarming escalation of the insurgent threat.
become increasingly brutal since the insurgency began in 2017, when militants ambushed police stations in the area. In recent years, the insurgents 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.