More than 180 people, including foreign workers, are trapped in a hotel in a city in northern Mozambique during a three-day siege by rebels, workers and security sources said on Friday.
According to witnesses and a rights group, several people were killed after the attack in Palma near a liquefied natural gas site in the province of Cabo Delgado.
The French oil giant Total is the main investor in 20 billion dollars (16.9 billion euros) – Africa’s largest – with six other international companies including ExxonMobil involved in the area.
Jihadist militants launched a raid on the coastal city on Wednesday afternoon, forcing frightened residents to flee into the surrounding forest as LNG and government workers sought refuge at the Amarula Palma Hotel.
“Almost the entire city was destroyed. Many people are dead,” a worker on the LNG website said by telephone on Friday night after being evacuated to Afungi.
He did not provide details about the victims or their nationalities.
“When the locals fled to the bush, workers from LNG companies, including foreigners, took refuge in the Amarula Hotel, where they are waiting to be rescued,” he said, asking not to be named.
Human Rights Watch said the attackers were linked to a group known locally as Al-Shabab, which has no known direct link to the Somali jihadist organization with a similar name.
“Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fled after Al-Shabab fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings,” the rights group said in a statement on Friday.
South African news website News24 reported that a South African citizen had died during the attack.
Another worker from a company subcontracted by Total said helicopters flew over the hotel earlier on Friday and tried to find “a corridor to rescue the approximately 180 people trapped in the hotel”.
“But until the evening, many stayed at the site while militants tried to advance towards the hotel,” he said.
In an unverified short video shared on social media, an unidentified man filmed the hotel lobby showing several people milling around the patio.
With the buzzing sound of a helicopter in the background, he described the situation in Palma as “critical”.
“We do not know if we will be rescued,” he said, adding that the hotel had run out of food but still had water.
The Mozambican government on Thursday confirmed the attack on the city, saying soldiers had launched an offensive to repel the fighters from the city, the hub of the giant gas project.
The new round of attacks began on Wednesday hours after Total announced a gradual resumption of work on the liquefied natural gas project, which had been hampered by the ongoing uprising in the region.
Militants affiliated with the so-called Islamic State group have raided villages and towns across the province, causing nearly 700,000 to flee their homes.
The violence has left at least 2,600 people dead, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data collection agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).
In a statement on Friday, the US Embassy in Maputo condemned the attack on Palma and promised its commitment “to work with the Government of Mozambique to combat violent extremism”.