United Nations teams have received “worrying” reports that Tanzania has rejected over 1,000 people seeking refuge from an attack on a town in northern Mozambique by ISIL-affiliated fighters, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said.
The March 24 attack on the town of Palma, adjacent to gas developments worth $60bn, sent the town’s residents scattering in all directions, with some fleeing into dense forest while others escaped by boat.
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The authorities say dozens have been killed, while thousands have fled the town of some 75,000 people.
Some headed north towards Tanzania, aid workers said.
“UNHCR teams … have received worrying reports from displaced populations that over 1,000 people fleeing Mozambique and trying to enter Tanzania were not allowed to cross the border to seek asylum,” its statement said on Tuesday.
It called on Mozambique’s neighbours to provide access to those seeking protection.
The UNHCR had earlier told Reuters news agency it does not have access to the border or affected areas, without giving a reason.
Two other aid workers said Tanzania had refused their organisations access, while the Mozambique side of the border was considered too dangerous.
National and local Tanzanian officials either did not respond to Reuters’ calls or declined comment.
Last week a boat with 45 fleeing Mozambicans on board docked in Tanzania, where a local community leader said they had been given food and shelter.
Hundreds of others, meanwhile, had crossed into Tanzania by land, only to be sent back later via a different border post, according to one of the aid workers and a security consultant who works with a number of humanitarian agencies.
One Palma resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said he was allowed into Tanzania but was then driven six hours and handed over to the Mozambican military in the border village of Negomano.
There was no food or shelter there, he said, so he continued to the district capital.
Armindo Ngunga, secretary of state for Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, said many people who had fled to Tanzania were coming back via Negomano, and authorities would take care of them. He did not provide numbers.
The military said on Sunday that Palma was now “completely safe”, while local media that visited the town said some citizens had started to return.
Meanwhile, six southern African presidents are to hold emergency talks on the crisis, a regional bloc said on Tuesday.
Talks will take place in the Mozambican capital of Maputo on Thursday, gathering the presidents of Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), which made the announcement, said the meeting would “deliberate on measures to address terrorism” in Mozambique.
Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the SADC’s current chair, said the attacks were an “affront” to the peace and security of Mozambique, the region and the international community.
Southern Africa had enjoyed relative stability compared to other regions in recent years until armed groups started battering Mozambique’s gas-rich Cabo Delgado province.
French energy giant Total last week shut its operations and withdrew all staff at a gas project on the Afungi peninsula, some 10km (6 miles) from the town.
Known locally as al-Shabab – but with no known relation to the Somali group of the same name – Cabo Delgado’s armed fighters have launched more than 800 raids on towns and villages in an apparent bid to establish an Islamic caliphate.
The violence has killed more than 2,600 people and uprooted around 750,000 others, according to estimates.