There have been attacks in the Cabo Delgado region for a few years now, but in the past week matters escalated dramatically when insurgents targeted the town of Palma. On Wednesday, at least seven people, including a South African, were killed, and almost 200 people were trapped in a hotel in Palma before mass evacuations by boat and air. Sally Burdett is joined by Dr Swikani Ncube, senior lecturer at the University of Johannesburg's Department of Public Law. Courtesy #DStv403
MAPUTO - The key northern Mozambique town of Palma was all but deserted on Monday, its residents fleeing by road, boat or on foot as the Islamic State (IS) group claimed control after a prolonged onslaught.
IS-linked militants attacked the town on Wednesday, escalating an Islamist insurgency that has spread steadily across northern Mozambique since 2017.
Dozens of people have been killed in the large-scale attack -- the closest yet to a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built 10 kilometres away by France's Total and other energy giants.
"The caliphate's soldiers seized the strategic town of Palma," IS said in a statement posted on its Telegram channels.
The town of 75,000 people in Cabo Delgado province was all but emptied of its population, said civil society activist Adriano Nuvunga.
"The violence has ceased, but it is believed some of the insurgents have pulled back and some are still around in hiding," he told AFP.
The government said dozens were killed in the coordinated militant attack, including seven people caught in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge.
A South African is among those killed, his family said.
Thousands of escapees were arriving on boats on Monday in Pemba, the provincial capital around 250 kms to the south, according to sources there.
International aid agency sources said between 6,000 and 10,000 people were waiting to be evacuated.
The attack forced expatriate workers and locals to seek refuge temporarily at a heavily guarded gas plant located on the nearby Afungi peninsula.
UN agencies were due to hold emergency talks to coordinate the evacuation and humanitarian aid for the new arrivals.
The defence ministry said late Sunday the security forces had "reinforced their operational strategy to contain the criminal attacks of terrorists and restore normality in Palma, having carried out operational actions focused primarily on the rescue of hundreds of citizens in the last three days."
Although the extremists launched their campaign in 2017, experts say they began mobilising a decade earlier as disgruntled youths started to practise a stricter form of Islam, upset over locals drinking alcohol and entering mosques dressed in shorts and shoes.
Their bloody campaign has claimed at least 2,600 lives, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).