Islamist insurgents claim to have captured the port of Mocimboa da Praia (MdP) in Mozambique’s restive Cabo Delgado region, a potential sign of their growing capabilities and possible threats to huge liquefied natural gas projects in the region.

Meanwhile, Tanzania’s government is about to start a hunt for what it terms “criminals” in the forests close to the Mozambican border.

The gas-rich Cabo Delgabo region is home to Total's under-development Mozambique LNG scheme and ExxonMobil's Rovuma LNG project, which has yet to be sanctioned.

Port captured

After a week-long campaign, local reports cited multiple sources as saying MdP was captured on the evening of 11 August.

This would be the fourth time the insurgents have tried to take control of the coastal town, which is at the heartland of the insurgency, since the attacks began in late 2017.

Previous fighting has seen residents flee for their lives, leaving MdP as a ghost town, according to the Centre for Democracy & Development, a Maputo-based non-governmental organisation, with the port left as the only relatively unscathed area.

Islamic State claimed the capture after its communication channels released what are alleged to be images of soldiers killed in an attack on barracks in MdP, as well as weapons and ammunition that had been taken.

Forces fight

Much of the town fell to the insurgents quickly, but naval forces held out at the port for some days until they ran out of ammunition, reported Mozambican news service Zitimar.

Helicopter gunships operated by South African mercenary outfit Dyck Advisory Group provided air support to government troops, but because the aircraft are based out of Pemba they can only spend a short time over MdP before needing to refuel, said Zitimar.

Power and communications links to the town were severed some days ago, said the news service, causing problems in confirming claims made by IS, while the government has remained silent.

Another local news agency, MediaFax, reported that Palma district, some 90 kilometres to the north by road and which hosts the Afungi liquefied natural gas construction site, has also been without power and communications for almost a week because of damage to MdP’s infrastructure.

LNG infrastructure

According to Zitimar, MdP’s port is of strategic importance to northern Cabo Delgado, including to the LNG site.

However, Upstream was told today by a source familiar with the gas projects that they have “no reliance on MdP".

In the early days of the development of the Afungi site, MdP’s airport had sometimes been used. But now, the site has a dedicated airstrip as well as an early beach landing through which material, fuel and provisions are brought in.

It is also understood that the site's communication and power facilities are “independent of MdP", said the source.

Currently, French supermajor Total is in the early stages of building two trains for its Mozambique LNG project at Afungi.

Next year, ExxonMobil is due to take a final investment decision on its larger Rovuma LNG scheme, which will also be built at the site.

Dozens of insurgents killed - government

The capture of MdP on 11 August was followed a day later by Mozambique’s Defense and Security Forces of Mozambique claiming they had killed 59 insurgents in the past week in Cabo Delgado.

On Friday, President Filipe Nyusi is expected to visit Pemba — Cabo Delgado's provincial capital — but it is unlikely he will address claims about MdP given the government's previous reluctance to discuss the insurgency.

On 7 August, concerned about the increased threat of terrorism, the US State Department advised its citizens to reconsider travel to Pemba.

“Brazen terrorist attacks in multiple districts of Cabo Delgado Province present the possibility that the provincial capital of Pemba could also be vulnerable to attack due to the proximity of violent extremist forces, their increasing sophistication, and the symbolic value of the provincial capital as a target," it said.

'Machetes and firearms'

As for the unstable northern districts of Cabo Delgado, the US government warned against any travel there.

“There have been frequent attacks by armed extremists, threats of violence and other forms of assault in the districts of Ancuabe, Ibo, Macomia, Meluco, Metuge, Mocimboa da Praia, Mueda, Muidumbe, Nangade, Palma, and Quissanga.

“These groups have used machetes and firearms to conduct lethal attacks and have burned vehicles and homes.

"While the attacks have been localised, it is possible that such violence could spill over into other districts,” the advisory note read.

Tanzania makes moves

In Tanzania, meanwhile, the southern brigade of the country's army is set to launch a manhunt in forests that border Mozambique.

The Citizen newspaper reported that the brigade is currently carrying out military exercises on Ruvuma province, across the border from Cabo Delgado and will later mobilise to forested areas near Mtwara port, and oil and gas service base, and Lindi, which is the site of a proposed LNG plant.

“We shall start with Ruvuma, after that we shall go to Mtwara and then Lindi, because there are people carrying out criminal activities and they are in these forests,” the paper cited a brigade source as saying.