A multi-billion dollar gas development in Mozambique, the the biggest investment in Africa, faces a new threat after an assault by Islamist insurgents forced Total to suspend its work for the second time this year.
Insurgents attacked Palma, a town 10 km from the $ 20 billion project in the northern Cabo Delgado region on Wednesday, killing several foreign workers in a battle that still raged on Sunday, local media reported.
Total said on Saturday that its workers were not among the victims but that its “top priority was to ensure the safety and security of those working on the project.” The French energy major said it would reduce its workforce on the liquefied natural gas project “to the bare minimum”.
Total had just announced the restart of the project following an earlier insurgency threat, when the attack on Palma began last week. The precise victims are not yet known due to poor communications with the region, which is about 2,700 km north of the capital, Maputo, by road.
“The planned remobilization of the project. . . is of course now suspended, ”Total said. He declined to give details on the number of employees removed.
President Filipe Nyusi’s government said last week it had launched an offensive to retake Palma, but has not provided any information since. A defense spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The insurgency in Cabo Delgado has killed thousands since it began in 2017 and forced nearly 700,000 residents of the province to leave their homes. Ill-equipped and poorly trained government forces have struggled to regain the initiative in the conflict.
The insurgency has gradually gathered momentum and has recently become a direct threat to the exploitation of huge offshore gas discoveries that have the potential to transform one of the poorest countries in the world if production can begin.
ExxonMobil, the US energy group, is running another $ 30 billion LNG project in Cabo Delgado, but has yet to make a final decision on whether to proceed with the investment.
“For the first time, insurgents are specifically attacking foreigners in the ongoing fighting in Palma,” said Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique expert at the UK Open University. “The attacks will raise serious questions about the expected development of the multibillion-dollar gas liquefaction plants,” which are based in the nearby Afungi peninsula, Hanlon said.
Insurgents staged an earlier attack near Afungi this year. Total has made the resumption of LNG development conditional on the ability of the security forces to enforce a cordon at least 25 km around the LNG project. Palma is well in this area.
Analysts said the Palma attack was unlikely to be linked to Total’s plans to restart the LNG project and that insurgents appeared to have staged a meticulously planned assault to gather supplies and humiliate security forces.
Palma had been in a virtual state of siege in recent weeks and had been filled with refugees fleeing kidnappings and beheadings. Food aid had arrived recently and could have been an insurgent target, analysts said.
Human Rights Watch said local residents reported bodies lying in the streets and intense fighting as the attack began on Wednesday, before phone lines were cut.
Over the weekend, insurgents reportedly attacked a convoy rescuing nearly 200 Mozambican and foreign workers and officials who had taken refuge in a hotel. Rescue operations by sea were underway on Sunday. Data from MarineTraffic, the vessel tracking website, indicates that several international vessels have diverted to Palma.
The South African government said on Saturday that its citizens had been affected by the attacks and that it was sending more staff to its embassy in Mozambique to deal with the consequences.
Researchers say the insurgency is rooted in local grievances over corruption and anger at being left out of development in Mozambique’s poorest province.
Isis has claimed credit for some past attacks and this month the US government said it views Cabo Delgado insurgents as being linked to the global terrorist group.
The Nyusi government turned to private security contractors to supply and reinforce its forces and also forged security ties with the United States in particular. The American Green Berets trained Mozambican soldiers.