Dozens of people are dead following an attack on the town of Palma in northern Mozambique, according to a spokesman from the country’s defence department.
Seven were killed trying to escape a siege on a hotel, said Omar Saranga, and hundreds of others, both locals and foreigners, were reportedly rescued.
The area has been under attack by Islamist militants since Wednesday. Witnesses have described hiding out while waiting to be rescued by boat, on a beach strewn with headless bodies.
The attacks in Palma started just hours after the French energy company Total announced that it would resume work outside the town on its huge natural gas project at Afungi, near Mozambique’s northeastern border with Tanzania, the Associated Press reports.
Rebel attacks prompted Total in January to suspend work on the project to extract gas from offshore sites.
The Mozambican army has been fighting the rebels in several locations to regain control of Palma, Omar Saranga, a defence ministry spokesman, said Sunday in the capital of Maputo.
Marine traffic websites showed many vessels around Palma, and the port of Pemba to the south, as people tried to escape by sea on any boat they could reach.
One local told the BBC many who escaped the hotel in convoys hid at the beach overnight on Friday and were evacuated by boat on Saturday morning.
One source close to the rescue operation said a boat with about 1,400 people on board had arrived in the port town of Pemba, about 250km south of Palma, on Sunday afternoon.
Aid agencies said several more small boats packed with displaced people were en route to Pemba and likely to arrive overnight or on Monday morning.
The exact number of casualties in Palma, a town of about 75,000 people in Cabo Delgado province, is unclear. Many are still unaccounted for.
The town and beaches are strewn with bodies “with heads and without”, according to a private security firm contracted by the Mozambique police in the area.
Hundreds of people fled the fighting, running into forests, mangroves or nearby villages.
More than 100 Total workers and civilians took refuge in the town’s Amarula Palma hotel.
Some tried to escape the hotel in a convoy of vehicles on Friday, aiming for a nearby beach. At least 20 people were reportedly flown to safety in helicopters, but others were ambushed outside the hotel.
Northern Mozambique has been torn apart by an insurgency since 2017.
Militants linked to the Islamic State group are behind the conflict in the predominantly Muslim region of Cabo Delgado. The fighting has left more than 2,500 people dead and 700,000 displaced.