At least one British expatriate is believed to have been killed as Islamists stormed a Mozambique town and surrounded a hotel where foreigners had taken refuge, military sources told the Telegraph.
Two other British nationals were evacuated by helicopter as jihadists known for brutal beheadings went on a bloody rampage through the northern town of Palma.
But dozens of expatriates of various nationalities are thought to have died as they were ambushed while attempting to escape from the Amarula Palma hotel, where around 200 people had been sheltering for two days.
Decapitated bodies remain scattered across Palma, according to local reports, where fighting between the extremists and security forces has raged on since Wednesday. After mercenaries evacuated the last of the foreigners, the entire town was seized by the militants, security sources said.
Children as young as 11 have been beheaded by extremist groups in recent weeks as a brutal insurgency has intensified across the northern Cabo Delgado province.
Since October 2017 at least 2,400 have people died, while some 700,000 have been forced to flee. The savage attacks have stunned aid workers in the region.
Palma is adjacent to gas projects worth $60 billion, led by oil majors including Total, where many expatriate workers were employed.
Rescue efforts had been underway with at least 20 people flown to safety in helicopters before the ambush, said Lional Dyck, who runs Dyck Advisory Group, a South African private security company that works with Mozambique's government.
Those who did not attempt to flee in the 17-car convoy on Friday were ferried away from the scene on boats.
A father of three was among those killed during the attack. Meryl Knox, 59, said her 41-year-old son Adrian Nel was shot in the convoy after waiting days to be rescued.
“They had tried to escape and were shot in a vehicle on their way out,” she told The Telegraph.
Her husband Greg, 55, and second son Wesley Nel, 37, escaped with their lives and were rescued by DAG, and taken to nearby Afundi and before being flown out to Pemba.
“We know of other South Africans desperate for news of their families," Mrs Knox said.
Jayde Alexander, 29, told The Telegraph her South African father, a former policeman, was among the missing. She said he was heading to the border with Tanzania, some 430 miles away, before disappearing.
“He had seen a gun in one of the Mozambique government’s abandoned vehicles and he took it,” she said as she described his attempted escape.
Palma is a logistic hub and base for multiple international firms looking to cash in on one of the biggest gas finds in a decade.
— jœ (@HalfManHalfRusk) March 27, 2021
Wednesday’s attack came just hours after Total SE announced the resumption of works at its site after halting them due to security issues.
Officials at Mozambique's foreign ministry, defence ministry and provincial government did not immediately respond to calls or had their phones switched off on Saturday. The national police said they were evaluating the situation without providing further details.
Mozambique's government had said that security forces were working to restore order in Palma, after it came under a three-pronged attack on Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear on Saturday how many people, if any, remained in the hotel and how many were missing.
Cindy Cooke, a South African whose 21-year-old stepson Francois van Niekerk is in Palma, was frantically trying to get information.
His family had not heard from him since the attack started on Wednesday, though rescuers had been to his location on Saturday and he was not there, she said.
"It's scary. Being there is no joke. They (the insurgents) are ruthless, just ruthless," she said.
Portugal's foreign ministry said one of its nationals had been injured in the attack on Palma but did not specify the circumstances. The person had since been rescued, and its embassy in Maputo was working to identify other Portuguese nationals who needed support, the ministry said in an email.
A spokesperson the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: "Our High Commission in Maputo is in direct contact with authorities in Cabo Delgado to urgently seek further information on these reports."
The Telegraph contacted Total SE for comment.