MAPUTO — Mozambican troops battled Islamist insurgents in a northern town on Monday close to billion-dollar gas projects being developed by Exxon Mobil and Total, the authorities said.
The general commander of the Mozambique’s police, Bernardino Rafael, said the insurgents had attacked the town, Mocimboa da Praia, and an army barracks there before dawn, wounding dozens of people.
Mocimboa da Praia is just south of the Afungi Peninsula, where gas projects worth $60 billion are located.
The town is strategically important to the projects. Until recently it was the location of the main airport for workers traveling to the site, before a landing strip was built at Afungi itself. And its port is used for some cargo deliveries for the projects.
On Monday, however, the town fell in the cross hairs of the insurgents.
“Mocimboa da Praia is currently an active combat zone,” Mr. Rafael told reporters at the police headquarters in Maputo.
The army was doing all it could to restore security, he said, warning people to stay away.
Security analysts said parts of the town, including the army barracks, were reported occupied by the attackers.
The insurgents started staging attacks in the province where the town is located, Cabo Delgado, in 2017. That posed a threat to the security of a nation set to become a global gas exporter after one of the biggest gas finds in a decade off the province’s shore.
Little is known about the insurgents.
Initial attacks were claimed by a group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama. More recently, the Islamic State has claimed a number of attacks.
More than 900 people have been reported killed in the province since 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
With the frequency of attacks increasing, some analysts are concerned that the insurgency could disrupt the gas boom.
Alexandre Raymakers, an Africa analyst for global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said the attack highlighted serious gaps in security and raised questions about Mozambique’s ability to defend the developments.
The gas companies’ infrastructure and personnel are “aspirational targets” for now, but the insurgents will most likely be emboldened by their successes and try to step up their assaults, Mr. Raymakers said.
Total said that it was aware of the developing situation in Mocimboa do Praia, but that the Afungi site remained secure and all members of its team accounted for.
Both Exxon and Total said the safety of their employees was a priority. Reuters reported in January that the oil companies had requested more government troops be bought in to protect the site amid a rise in the number of attacks.