Dozens of people were killed in coordinated jihadist attacks in northern Mozambique’s Palma town, the government said on Sunday, four days after the raid was launched and forced the evacuation of thousands of survivors to safety in the provincial capital Pemba.

Seven of those were killed in an ambush during an operation to evacuate them from a hotel where they had sought refuge, it said.

“Last Wednesday, a group of terrorists sneaked into… Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenceless people,” defence ministry spokesman Omar Saranga, told a news conference.

Foreigners were among those caught in the violence, but the government did not say how many foreign nationals were killed.

So far one South African is known to have died during the attack, his family confirmed to AFP.

In the last three days, government security forces had prioritised “the rescue of hundreds of citizens, nationals and foreigners”, said Saranga, without giving a breakdown of the numbers.

An unknown number of militants began attacking the town, a gas hub in the province of Cabo Delgado, on Wednesday, forcing nearly 200 workers, including foreign employees, to evacuate a hotel where they had taken refuge.

They were temporarily taken to the heavily guarded gas plant located on the Afungi peninsula on the Indian Ocean coast south of the Tanzanian border before being moved to Pemba.

Some residents of the town of around 75,000 people fled to the peninsula — home of a multi-billion-dollar gas project being built by France’s Total and other energy companies.

A boat laden with evacuees landed in Pemba on Sunday, according to police patrolling the city port.

According to a source close to the rescue operation, there were “about 1,400” people on board.

Those evacuated included non-essential staff of Total and Palma residents who had sought refuge at the gas plant.

Several other small boats packed with displaced people were on their way to Pemba and expected to arrive overnight or Monday morning, according to humanitarian aid agencies.

Airport officials in Pemba said humanitarian aid flights had been suspended to free up space for military operations.

Caritas, a Catholic aid agency which is active in the province, also reported new arrivals to Pemba, located around 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Palma.

– Shot in their homes –

“Now we await the arrival of people who are most vulnerable so that we can provide assistance,” the local head of Caritas, Manuel Nota, told AFP.

Human Rights Watch said the militants indiscriminately shot civilians in their homes and on the streets.

“A rescue operation is currently underway. An unknown number of people died as they tried to flee Amarula hotel,” Human Rights Watch regional director Dewa Mavhinga told AFP.

The militant attack on Palma is the closest yet to the major gas project during a three-year Islamist insurgency across Mozambique’s north.

Since October 2017, extremist fighters have raided villages and towns in the region, forcing nearly 700,000 to flee their homes.

Although they launched their campaign in 2017, experts say they had begun mobilising a decade earlier as disgruntled youths starting to practise a different type of Islam, drinking alcohol and entering mosques dressed in shorts and shoes.

The violence has now taken root and claimed at least 2,600 people lives, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED).

– ‘Appalling violence’ –

Martin Ewi, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies, said that “over 100” people were still unaccounted for since the attack.

“That’s what we know so far, but it so confusing.”

While local media reports said British workers may also have been caught in the attack, the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office said its embassy in Maputo was in “direct contact with authorities in Cabo Delgado to urgently seek further information on these reports”.

“The UK wholeheartedly condemns the appalling violence in Cabo Delgado. It must stop,” Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, tweeted.

The US, whose troops are helping train Mozambican troops fight the insurgency, said Sunday it “continues to monitor the horrific situation in Palma”, adding one American citizen who was in Palma had been safely evacuated.

The embassy announced earlier this month that American military personnel will spend two months training soldiers in Mozambique.