By Estacio Valoi, Tim Lister, Vasco Cotovio and Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Maputo, Mozambique (CNN)The attempted evacuation of people trapped during an attack in northern Mozambique by Islamist militants has led to multiple casualties, with dozens of people still unaccounted for, according to reports, in what the US embassy in Maputo is calling a "horrific situation."
The town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province was attacked by Islamist insurgents on Wednesday, according to multiple sources contacted by CNN. Witnesses reported seeing bodies in the streets after the insurgents, believed to be affiliated with the terrorist group ISIS, attacked Palma from three directions, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday. Dozens of people have been killed, Omar Saranga, spokesman for the Mozambique Defense and Security Forces, said in a broacast statement Sunday. The fatalities include both locals and foreigners working in the region, he said, without detailing their nationalities. Among the dead were seven people who were ambushed while trying to leave the Amaarula Hotel and join a vehicle convoy, Saranga added. According to several accounts provided to CNN, a convoy of about 17 vehicles left Palma on late Friday afternoon. There were many foreign workers in the convoy as well as Mozambicans. Palma is near a major natural gas project run by the French company Total. A regional security source based in Pemba said the convoy was ambushed and only seven vehicles reached safety. However, several people in those vehicles were killed or injured. The other vehicles and their occupants remain unaccounted for, source said.
Another source -- who works in the area and has direct knowledge of the logistics operation -- told CNN that at least eight vehicles in the convoy were still missing. When asked how many people were still unaccounted for, the source said at least 50, adding it was a "conservative estimate."
The accounts provided to CNN say the convoy left a hotel on the northern outskirts of Palma heading towards the large Total natural gas project on the Afungi Peninsula, some 15 kilometers away. But it had no air cover from helicopters that had been deployed to the area by a South African military contractor.
The security source in Pemba also said attempts to reach the nearby coastline with rescue boats had been fruitless, after the vessels had come under fire from the militants, known locally as Shabaab, and with no links to the Somali group of the same name. However, some people who had managed to escape Palma were subsequently brought from a nearby port to Pemba, some 200 kilometers to the south, on board a ferry. They included about 120 foreigners.
In his Sunday statement, Saranga said the country's Defense and Security Forces (FDS) had "reinforced their operational strategy to contain the criminal offensives of the terrorists." "At this point in time, the FDS remain committed in clarifying the areas of Palma in order to guarantee the safe return of the population. All FDS positions are currently under its control," he said.
Regional security sources say the attackers used explosives to target bank branches in Palma. They say that some of the insurgents wore military uniforms. Human Rights Watch and others say that in the early stages of the assault witnesses described the militants as attacking and killing local people in their homes and on the streets of Palma.
Many people who have been living and working in Palma remain out of reach. In a statement to CNN, the US embassy in Maputo said it was "aware of one U.S. citizen who was in Palma, but has been safely evacuated," adding that it was in touch with "Mozambican authorities, international missions, and the private sector regarding the ongoing situation and humanitarian relief efforts." "The U.S. Embassy in Mozambique continues to monitor the horrific situation in Palma District," it also said.
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One woman waiting at the port in Pemba for news of her brother had been unable to reach him by phone. "It's heart-breaking, I don't know... You lose someone and you don't know where they are, what condition they're in, that person is not reachable," she told a journalist working with CNN.
At least two coaches carrying evacuees later arrived at Pemba airport for a flight to the capital, Maputo. Total announced Saturday it was suspending plans to restart operations in the Afungi Peninsula, which were previously halted after insurgent attacks in January.
Tim Lister reported from Spain, Vasco Cotovio reported from London, Robyn Curnow reported from Atlanta and Estacio Valoi reported from Mozambique