Human Rights Watch on Friday called on Mozambique authorities to take urgent measures to protect civilians fleeing an armed Islamist group in the town of Palma, in northern Cabo Delgado province where there has been heavy fighting since March 25, 2021.
The fighting started when the group known locally as both Al-Shabab and Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), raided the gas-rich town, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians and causing mass flight.
Witnesses told the human rights organization that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the Al-Shabab fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings. Mobile phone signals have been disrupted, making it harder to obtain information about the situation, the casualties, and the whereabouts of many residents. The attack unlawfully targeted civilians in their homes in violation of the laws of war.
“Al-Shabab fired on civilians in their homes and on the streets in Palma, as they tried to flee for their lives,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mozambican authorities should move swiftly to protect civilians and bring all those responsible for abuses to account.”
Mozambique’s Defense Ministry announced on March 25 that an army operation to restore order and security in Palma was underway. The ministry spokesman said that the group “attacked the town of Palma in three directions: Pundanhar – Manguna crossroads, Nhica do Rovuma road, and the Palma airfield.”
Local and international journalists who spoke to Palma residents reported similar accounts. The Maputo-based website “A Carta” said that many people had sought refuge in the local hotel after the armed men fired at civilians. Reuters News agency quoted security source as saying that bodies were visible in the streets, some of them beheaded. The Portuguese News Agency, Lusa, reported that foreign nationals who worked on gas projects in the Palma region, fled alongside residents.
The attack on Palma began hours after Mozambique’s government and the French oil and gas company Total announced the gradual resumption of work on the Afungi industrial project, near the town of Palma, after the improvement of security conditions. Total had suspended activities and evacuated non-essential staff from the Afungi site after a series of insurgent attacks in December and January.
Palma is inaccessible by road due to insecurity caused by frequent attacks along the Nangade–Palma road, which has led to a massive food shortage. In January, the first army-protected convoy with food and other essential supplies in nearly a year, arrived by road to the town from Mueda district. In March, the first group of international journalists, who flew into the town, described an environment of hunger and fear of beheadings and kidnappings by Al-Shabab.
Districts in Northern Cabo Delgado have been the center of much fighting between government forces and the armed Islamist group since October 2017, when Al-Shabab attacked a string of police stations in the area, causing two days of government lockdowns.
Fighting between the group and government forces has left more than 1,500 civilians dead and displaced more than 600,000. Al Shabab forces have attacked villages, carried out summary executions including beheadings, looted, and destroyed civilian property and infrastructure, including schools and health centers.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have also documented abuses by government security forces during operations against Al-Shabab, including excessive use of force, killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detention, and ill-treatment of detainees. No one has been held to account for these abuses.
International human rights and humanitarian law applicable to Mozambique prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody, Human Rights Watch said. The Mozambican authorities should ensure that security forces deployed to Palma respect human rights and humanitarian law and treat everyone in their custody humanely. All parties to an armed conflict have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians and protect those under their control from the effects of attacks.
“Armed groups’ horrific abuses pose a threat to civilians throughout the region,” Mavhinga said. “Mozambique authorities should make restoring security a top priority in Cabo Delgado province.”