UN says many fled violence with just the clothes they were wearing, warns 1.1 million people will need help next year.
An armed group attacked the northern Mozambique town closest to gas projects worth some $60bn on Wednesday, striking ever closer to developments that have already stalled over security problems.
The attack on the town of Palma – less than 25km (15 miles) by road from a construction camp for the gas developments led by oil majors such as Total – happened the same day the French company announced it would gradually resume work at the site after suspending it because of nearby attacks.
Mozambique’s northern-most province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering armed uprising on the projects’ doorstep, which has escalated in the past year as fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS) began taking on the army to seize entire towns.
Portuguese state news agency Lusa first reported the attack, which Reuters news agency said was confirmed by a security source and another person familiar with the matter.
Several security sources, who requested anonymity, told the AFP news agency that Palma was under siege.
One military commander based in the capital Maputo said two groups of “militants” concomitantly attacked a police checkpoint and residential neighbourhoods.
“Government forces resisted but then they had to flee,” said another military source in Palma. “The militants are using heavy, new weapons that we have never seen before.”
A third source said a plane about to land in Afungi town near the Total operation was forced to turn back because of a “heavy weapons attack”.
It was not able immediately to verify the reports with officials, as calls to spokespeople for the defence ministry and security forces as well as police were not answered. A local Total spokesperson could not immediately be reached.
Lusa, citing unnamed sources, said automatic gunfire could be heard in Palma and people were fleeing. It said later communication was cut off.
The latest attack came as Total announced earlier on Wednesday it would “progressively resume” construction at the site “following the implementation of additional site security measures”.
“Total and the government of Mozambique have worked together to define and implement an action plan” to reinforce the security of the Afungi site and the surrounding area, the company said in a statement.
Fighting in Cabo Delgado is estimated to have killed nearly 2,300 people since it started more than three years ago, and 355,000 have been forced to leave their homes.
Initially known for beheadings, the armed group has in the past year managed to take control of entire towns, including one, Mocimboa da Praia, used as a transit point for goods and workers related to the gas developments.
Palma’s proximity to the projects means it has even more strategic importance, and is seen as a base for both the operations and workforce of many companies, which have moved into the region in hopes of cashing in on one of the biggest gas finds in nearly 10 years.