Zambia President Levy Mwanawasa says his country has discovered petroleum for the first time on its territory. The president said a cabinet-level commission is to oversee development of several fields in the northwestern part of the country.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa told local news media that of 12 sites tested by government geologists, 12 tested positive for oil and six tested positive for natural gas.

The deposits were discovered in two districts: Chavuma and Zambezi, in Northwestern Province near Zambia's border with Angola. The president said further exploration is needed to determine the sizes of the fields and whether exploration should be expanded to other areas.

He appointed a cabinet-level commission, headed by Mines Minister Kalombo Mwansa, to formulate policies on licenses for exploration and extraction.

Zambia is one of the world's largest producers of copper and is wealthy in other minerals, like coal. But it has not produced petroleum and must import all of its oil.

An energy analyst with the London-based Global Insight group, Thomas Permain, is cautiously optimistic about the discovery.

"Zambia should not get carried away with this announcement today, but if results are positive then it is possible that they could be producing oil within the next four or five years," he said.

He notes that Uganda made similar discoveries six months ago and now projects that in five years it will produce enough petroleum for its own domestic consumption.

An analyst with the IHF group with long experience in southern Africa, Andrew Heyman, acknowledges that there are many sedimentary deposits in southern Africa that might contain petroleum. But he remains guarded, noting that international oil companies abandoned exploration in Zambia 14 years ago.

"Even if this were indicative of hydrocarbon systems that are operating in the ground, nevertheless, that does not mean you have got hydrocarbon reserves that can be exploited," he said. "That is a completely further step for which a lot more research has got to go into."

He says studies have shown that the burning of massive amounts of biomass, such as forest fires that have occurred in that area, can produce detectable hydrocarbons. Nevertheless, he says multinational oil companies are likely to take an interest in the Zambian find because there is a great demand for oil producing tracts at this time.