A man cycles along a street past a gas station, June 11, 2018, in Macomia, Northern Mozambique. Cabo Delgado, a northern province expected to become the center of a natural gas industry after several promising discoveries, has seen a string of assaults on security forces and civilians since October.
FILE - A man bikes past a gas station, June 11, 2018, in Macomia, Northern Mozambique. Cabo Delgado, a northern province expected to become the center of a natural gas industry, has seen a string of assaults on security forces and civilians since October.

MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE/WASHINGTON — Authorities in Mozambique say they are taking necessary measures to ensure the safety of foreign gas companies operating in the restive northern part of the country.

Last week, several international oil and gas companies including ExxonMobil and Total made a request to the Mozambican government to send additional security to the northern province of Cabo Delgado, where Islamist militant attacks have significantly increased in recent weeks.

Mozambique’s defense minister, Jaime Neto, said Tuesday that his government will provide all security needed to foreign companies that have been exploring for natural gas in the southeast African country.

“It is natural for companies to be concerned about security,” he said in a statement, adding that “the government is doing everything so that these multinational [firms], including their workers, can operate with tranquility and security.”

Map of Mozambique

There are about 500 Mozambican military personnel protecting gas companies and their operations in northern Mozambique. But foreign companies have asked that at least 300 more soldiers be sent to the region.

Contacted by VOA, an ExxonMobil spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on its discussions with governments.

However, the spokesperson added that, “We continue to monitor security developments in the Cabo Delgado region and work closely with the government regarding appropriate safeguards to protect people, operations and facilities.”

Limited capacity

Some experts say that because of the nature of security agreements between foreign companies and Mozambican authorities, the mission of Mozambican troops is limited to the immediate vicinity of gas companies and not the entire region of Cabo Delgado.

“The Mozambican military has deployed its best trained soldiers, who are already limited to areas around the LNG [liquefied natural gas] projects,” said Jasmine Opperman, an Africa associate at the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, a U.K.-based think tank.

Opperman, who is based in South Africa, says there are also concerns about whether the soldiers deployed to the region will receive payment for their services.

“These companies need assurances that the money will end up in the pockets of soldiers,” she told VOA in a phone interview.

While foreign companies have their own security personnel, Mozambican defense and security forces usually provide protection in the general zone where these companies operate.

Young Mozambican fishermen return to the shore after several days of fishing in Palma, where large deposits of natural gas where found offshore, Feb. 16, 2017.

Concerns about future investments

In recent years, several multinational oil and gas companies have shown interest in investing in exploration projects in Mozambique.

In October, ExxonMobil said it has plans to invest more than $500 million in the initial construction phase of its gas project in Cabo Delgado.

The Mozambican government says that such projects have the potential to create thousands of jobs in the impoverished Muslim-majority region.

However, a growing local Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique has alarmed international companies about the future of their investments in the region, experts said.

“They are putting pressure on the Mozambican government about needing to strengthen its own state security and providing better security in the districts of northern Cabo Delgado,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House.

He told VOA that despite concerns about the incompetence of the Mozambican military, “there are bits of the security apparatus that can deliver more consistent security provision.”

U.S. officials also have acknowledged that Mozambique has been facing challenges in dealing with militant threats.

“The United States and other regional and international partners have been engaged in helping the government develop a holistic security, community engagement and communication approach,” Stephanie Amadeo, director of the Office of Southern African Affairs at the U.S. State Department, said last June during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Increased attacks

Since 2017, militant attacks in northern Mozambique have increased, killing and wounding hundreds of people. But militants’ attacks on civilians and military personnel have intensified in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Islamist militants carried out attacks on two villages in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, killing seven civilians and setting several houses ablaze, local reports said.

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Christian advocacy group, said that in the past five days, there have been at least six attacks in Cabo Delgado.

Luis Fernando Lisboa, the bishop of Pemba, the provincial capital of Cabo Delgado, said that one of the recent attacks was on a vocational school, where there were more than 500 students.

“We do not have an exact death toll, I believe [since 2017] more than 500 people have already lost their lives because of these attacks,” Lisboa told reporters.

Calton Cadeado, who teaches peace and conflict at Joaquim Chissano University in Maputo, says the Mozambican government needs to change its approach when it comes to combatting extremist fighters.

“Instead of being defensive, the government has to be offensive,” he told VOA. “The [government] armed forces have to go after the insurgents, because at the moment that is not the case, which gives comfort to the militants.”

IS Presence

Several radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years. One of such groups is Ansar al-Sunna, which has been responsible for dozens of terror attacks against civilians and government forces in northern Mozambique.

The group is known locally as al-Shabab and also goes by Ahlu al-Sunna and Swahili Sunna. With suspected links to the Islamic State (IS), little is known about Ansar al-Sunna and its political objectives.

Experts say after losing all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, IS seems to be shifting its strategy and focusing on local militant groups in Africa and elsewhere that have pledged allegiance to the terror group.

“Irrespective to the implosion of the caliphate, they are expanding in Africa,” said analyst Opperman. “They have even reached the shores of southern Africa, which is something new to this region.”

VOA’s Amancio Vilanculos contributed to this story from Washington.