Boatloads of people fled to the coastal city of Pemba. AFP/Alfredo Zuniga
MAPUTO - Jihadist fighters who raided the northern Mozambique town of Palma last month may be planning their next move, analysts say, raising fears of more attacks in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province.
On 24 March, Islamic-State-linked militants launched a strategic, coordinated assault on Palma that overwhelmed security forces and caused French energy giant Total to abandon a nearby gas project.
Dozens of people were killed and thousands displaced by a raid considered one of the worst acts of Islamist militancy in southern Africa.
Speculation is now rife about what to expect next from insurgents boosted by the latest assault, during which they garnered fresh provisions and ammunition.
"What is sure is that there is going to be another major attack," warned Institute for Security Studies researcher Martin Ewi in South Africa.
Analysts and security sources have raised red flags around the provincial capital Pemba, a port town of some 150,000 inhabitants around 400 kilometres south of Palma.
But neighbouring towns and villages are also exposed, including those bordering southern Tanzania -- already grappling with its own jihadists and spillover from Mozambique's insurgency.
"Pemba is the one everybody is scared of but it's really impossible to tell where they are going to hit next," said Crisis Group Africa expert Dino Mahtani.
Mozambique government officials claim Palma is back under government control.
But the departure last week of South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) - hired by Mozambique to help fight the insurgency - has fuelled concern over the army's ability to fend for itself while the government considers new contracts.
"There will be a security vacuum in Cabo Delgado this month, if not longer," said a report by specialist intelligence firm Pangea-Risk last week.
"Further attacks on Palma should also be expected," it warned, as well as a potential raid on the village of Quitunda near Total's gas site, around which thousands of displaced Palma residents have sought refuge.
Cabo Delgado's jihadists have wreaked havoc across the Muslim-majority province for over three years in a bid to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah, the shadowy group escalated attacks last year, notably capturing the key port town of Mocimboa da Praia in August.