PEMBA, MOZAMBIQUE - More than a week after jihadis staged a deadly raid on the northern Mozambican town of Palma, survivors streamed Thursday into the port of Pemba, the capital of gas-rich Cabo Delgado province.
Scores of relatives huddled outside the port, straining to spot family members disembarking from boats arriving from Palma, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) away.
More than 8,000 were displaced, dozens killed and many more are still missing following a coordinated attack on the town of Palma on March 24.
The jihadis reportedly beheaded residents and ransacked buildings in a rampage that forced thousands to seek safety in surrounding forests.
The attack is seen as the biggest escalation of the Islamist insurgency ravaging Cabo Delgado province since 2017.
‘No sense of normalcy’
On fishing boats or on foot, thousands of survivors fled the city of 75,000 inhabitants, more than 40,000 of whom had already been displaced from their original homes and were living in Palma.
Hundreds more were still arriving in Pemba, the U.N. said Thursday.
There is "no sense of normalcy returning, unfortunately," the U.N. refugee agency's Juliana Ghazi told AFP in Johannesburg from Pemba on Thursday.
A woman wearing a blue denim pinafore and pink face mask sat on the ground at the port, with a vacant stare, one hand clutching a fence, waiting for her son.
Another woman consoled her as she broke down in sobs.
A ferry carrying almost 1,200 passengers, mainly women and children, had docked at the port overnight.
The most vulnerable escapees, including unaccompanied and injured children, are being flown to the city. The U.N. said nearly half of the 8,166 people who are registered as displaced are children.
The attack launched last Wednesday was the latest in a string of more than 830 organized raids by the Islamist militants over the past three years, killing more than 2,690 and uprooting nearly 700,000.
A South African man was among those killed when a convoy of cars trying to evacuate survivors from a hotel was ambushed, his family said.
Britain's Times newspaper Thursday reported that a Briton also died in the ambush and that his remains had been handed to the Special Air Services rescue team.
The defense ministry could not confirm or deny the death.
The African Union has called for urgent and coordinated international action to jointly address the "urgent threat to regional and continental peace and security."
In a statement, AU Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat expressed "utmost concern" at the presence of international extremist groups in southern Africa.
The regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) held emergency talks Wednesday in Harare to discuss the violence.
"This has heightened insecurity in the area, leading to a serious humanitarian crisis," the SADC chair, Botswana's President Mokgweetsi Masisi, said in a statement Thursday. "It is our fervent hope that the perpetrators will be quickly arrested and brought to justice."
But Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi on Wednesday played down the attack as "not the biggest," despite its unprecedented proximity to Africa's single biggest investment project.
Gas project protected
French oil giant Total and other international companies have invested in a multibillion-dollar gas exploration scheme off the Afungi Peninsula, about 10 kilometers (six miles) away from Palma.
Total evacuated some staff and suspended construction work in late December following a series of jihadi attacks near its compound.
Army spokesman Chongo Vidigal said the gas project was protected.
"We are currently in the special area in Afungi and never had a terrorism threat," he told reporters in Palma.
The aid-dependent country has sent troops to Palma to try to recapture the town. On Tuesday, Mozambique's former colonial master, Portugal, announced plans to send about 60 troops to back them up.
Cabo Delgado's jihadis have wreaked havoc across the province with the aim of establishing a caliphate. The insurgents are affiliated with the Islamic State group, which claimed the attack on Palma this week.