People stand outside their submerged homes near Nhamatanda, about 80 miles from Beira, in Mozambique, on March 26, 2019.

Hundreds remain missing after Cabo Delgado attack

Last week, Islamist insurgents stormed Palma, killing dozens of people, according to Mozambique’s Ministry of Defense spokesperson Omar Saranga. 

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People stand outside their submerged homes near Nhamatanda, about 80 miles from Beira, in Mozambique, on March 26, 2019. Northern Mozambique’s humanitarian crisis is quickly growing with more than 650,000 people displaced by the Islamic extremist insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province, and nearly 1 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to international aid groups on March 16, 2021.

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Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

A dayslong terrorist attack has utterly upended the beachside town of Palma in northern Mozambique.

Last Wednesday, Islamist insurgents stormed Palma, killing dozens of people, according to Mozambique’s Ministry of Defense spokesperson Omar Saranga.

Seven were brutally killed when militants ambushed a convoy leaving from Amarula hotel where some residents had been seeking shelter, Saranga said.

In recent days, thousands of people have fled the area, which is the site of the multibillion-dollar LNG natural gas project — they join more than 670,000 Mozambicans who have been displaced by the violence.

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But hundreds remain missing, according to Joana Martins of Anonymous Volunteers of Mozambique (Vamoz), a local network of volunteers that has been fundraising for people in Cabo Delgado since Cyclone Idai.

For Martins, the attack in Palma hit close to home — 17 of her colleagues and friends at Vamoz went missing during the attack, spurring her and other volunteers to create a 24-hour hotline to register missing persons.

Nearly 800 people are missing — most are Mozambicans working in jobs related to the LNG project but some are foreigners from South Africa, the UK and other countries, according to Martins.

While many were evacuated by helicopters and boats in rescues staged by private security and logistics companies, others have fled to neighboring Tanzania or are still stranded in Palma and surrounding areas in Cabo Delgado.

Since 2017, Cabo Delgado has been increasingly wracked by violence by a local Islamist militant group called Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ), and referred to locally as al-Shabab. In a short time, the group linked to ISIS has cultivated a reputation for brutal attacks on civilians.

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“We spoke to witnesses who saw bodies on the streets and who saw the members of the armed Islamist group that they called al-Shabab shooting indiscriminately.”

Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch

“We spoke to witnesses who saw bodies on the streets and who saw the members of the armed Islamist group that they called al-Shabab shooting indiscriminately,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“They said some of the bodies lying on the streets had heads missing. They had been beheaded,” he continued.

HRW has been researching human rights violations by insurgents in Cabo Delgado, and by Mozambican security forces.

Mozambican security forces say defense operations against the militants in Palma are ongoing, as are efforts to rescue and protect civilians.

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