Displaced women with their children wait for assistance at a building used by refugees as shelter in Pemba, Mozambique, after…
Displaced women with their children wait for assistance at a building used by refugees as shelter in Pemba, Mozambique, after they fled attacks in Palma in northern Mozambique, April 19, 2021.

GENEVA - U.N. agencies say the number of people who have fled last month’s armed attacks in northern Mozambique’s coastal town of Palma has now risen to nearly 30,500.

Most of those who have fled Palma have gone to Pemba, the capital of northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. The U.N. refugee agency said dozens of people reportedly have been killed by Islamist militants who began their assault on the oil and gas rich town on March 24.

Thousands flee Palma

U.N. refugee spokesman Babar Balloch said thousands of people fled Palma in a panic by foot, by road and by sea. He said they have been arriving in Pemba with no belongings, often in ill health or with injuries and severely malnourished.

He said desperate people are still on the run.

“They are fleeing still Palma area as far as still last night," Balloch said. "My colleagues in Pemba were telling me that there were three boats that arrived with civilians. At least 100 people on board, and as we were talking, a majority of them are women and children.”

Balloch said many more people are believed to be trapped inside Palma, unable to leave. France’s energy giant Total recently suspended a multi-billion-dollar gas project in northern Mozambique because of the jihadist assault.

Violence stops aid workers

Balloch said government forces are on the ground inside Palma, but he does not know how much of the area they have secured. He said UNHCR aid workers are unable to work there because of the dangers.

He said the ongoing armed conflict in Cabo Delgado has resulted in grave human rights abuses. He said critical services are disrupted and that is seriously affecting civilians. Children, who account for half of the displaced population, are at particular risk.

Balloch said many children get separated from their families during their flight to Pemba.

“Hundreds of children have arrived traumatized and exhausted after being separated from their families," Balloch said. "Many others have come with their mothers … UNHCR is working with UNICEF and our other partners and referring vulnerable displaced children to appropriate services or for family reunification, mental health, and psychological support, as well as material assistance.”

Cabo Delgado’s four-year-long conflict has killed or injured tens of thousands of people and forcibly displaced more than 700,000.