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U.N. warns civilians, including kids, facing "unspeakable horror" in ISIS siege on Mozambique town

Dozens killed in northern Mozambique
Dozens killed in northern Mozambique 01:59

Johannesburg, South Africa — As ISIS militants laid siege to Mozambique's coastal city of Palma over the weekend, nearly 200 foreign workers holed up in a local hotel faced a terrifying choice: Stay put and hope to be rescued, or attempt to flee across rebel lines. Meryl Knox, a South African whose husband and two sons were among those trapped, said worrying about her family, "wondering whether they they're all going to be coming home in boxes," was a harrowing ordeal.

They tried to escape from the hotel and Palma, which the insurgents seized over the course of about three days, in a convoy of 17 cars. Only seven of the vehicles made it out of militant-held territory in the embattled Cabo Delgado region. Among those killed was Knox's eldest son, Adrian Nel. Her husband and her other son had to hide in bushes overnight with his body. 

Dozens of residents were also killed in the coordinated attacks, and reports suggest ISIS took as many as 40 foreign nationals hostage. The charity Save the Children said on Tuesday that the conflict in Cabo Delgado has left at least 2,658 people dead, including 1,341 civilians, since it started in 2017.

Conflict in Mozambique raises alarm 08:00

But the insurgents have stepped up their violence, and the death toll is likely higher after the vicious assault on Palma. At least 670,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes in the region, including thousands who escaped from Palma on foot and by boat over the weekend.

Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in a statement issued on Tuesday called the siege on Palma "an absolute horror being inflicted on civilians by a non-State armed group."

"They have done horrific things, they are still doing so, we have reported this morning of continued sporadic clashes, that is why we are talking about our expectations of thousands more people moving out from Palma district towards other areas of the country and towards the border with Tanzania," Laerke said. 

Save the Children said unaccompanied children were among those arriving in the town of Pemba.

"Children have witnessed scenes of unimaginable and unspeakable horror," Save the Children's Mozambique country director Chance Briggs said. "We cannot begin to imagine how they must be feeling or the fear in their parent's hearts. Separated children are particularly vulnerable, and our teams are doing all they can to identify them and reunify them with their families as quickly as possible."

Muza Momadi waits on the outskirts of the seaport of Pemba, Mozambique, March 30, 2021, for news about her mother and brother who were evacuated from the coast of Palma after an attack by armed insurgents on the city of Palma. ALFREDO ZUNIGA/AFP/Getty

At stake in Cabo Delgado are natural gas projects worth around $50 billion that are being developed by energy companies from France, the U.S. and other nations.

The U.S. has designated the ISIS franchise in Mozambique a global terrorist organization, and American special operations forces are currently training Mozambican troops in how to contain the extremists   

There is concern that ISIS could be making a land-grab similar to their rampage across northern Iraq in 2014. A senior U.S. State Department official told CBS News they see a striking similarity between the battlefield tactics being employed by the militants in Mozambique and those used by the terror group in both Iraq and Syria.   

Mozambique Rebel Attack
An image taken from militant video released by ISIS on March 29, 2021, purports to show fighters near the strategic northeast Mozambique town of Palma, as the militant group claimed it had taken control of the area after five days of conflict. AMAQ militant video via AP

In the meantime, the killing continues, and families like Meryl Knox's — and countless more in Mozambique — will keep paying the price.

"My son's life was taken needlessly, and that's why I want everybody to know — not only his life, everybody else that's been involved with this, and the survivors, what they're going to have to deal with is just too horrific to comprehend," she told CBS News, adding that, in her opinion, "they've all been let down" by Mozambique's defense forces, which clearly have been overwhelmed by the speed and brutality of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

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