France's Total pulls all staff from Mozambique gas site amid clashes - sources

Emma Rumney and David Lewis
·3 min read
Officials stand guard as a ship carrying more than 1,000 people fleeing an attack on the town of Palma, docks in Pemba

By Emma Rumney and David Lewis

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - French energy major Total has withdrawn all its staff from its Afungi natural gas site in northern Mozambique, two sources said on Friday, as clashes between Islamic State-linked fighters and the military rage nearby.

The company, which last week called off the planned resumption of construction at the $20 billion development due to the violence, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

The government says dozens of people have died since militants launched attacks in the coastal town of Palma last week, in a district near gas projects worth tens of billions of dollars that are meant to transform Mozambique's economy.

The two sources, who have direct knowledge of Total's operations, said the company decided to withdraw its staff as militants appeared to get closer to the site. They declined to go into further details.

Insurgents took over some Mozambican military positions near the Afungi site south of Palma on Friday and the situation was still highly volatile, a separate security source told Reuters.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it was temporarily suspending evacuation flights from Palma for people affected by the violence, citing a deterioration in the security situation. Flights transporting humanitarian workers and food would continue, a spokeswoman added.

Mozambique's defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for Mozambique's military was quoted by a local radio station as saying the Afungi site was beyond the reach of the militants.

"It is protected, ... at no time was its integrity at stake," Radio Mozambique cited army spokesman Chongo Vidigal as saying. The radio station added in its report published late on Thursday that the area around the Total project was being patrolled day and night to repel any threat.

Reuters has not been able to verify the accounts from Palma independently. Most means of communication were cut off after the attack began on March 24.

Aid groups believe the attack displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom fled to safety in dense forest areas nearby or by boat.

Islamic State-linked insurgents have been increasingly active in the surrounding province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, although it is unclear whether they have a unified aim or what specifically they are fighting for.

At least 9,150 people have fled to other districts of Cabo Delgado during the latest violence, with thousands more believed displaced within the Palma district, the United Nations said on Friday.

"The new wave of displacement has uprooted many people who had fled their places of origin due to the conflict in other parts of Cabo Delgado and had been seeking shelter in Palma," it said.

Total's project is among energy developments worth a combined $60 billion that would revolutionise Mozambique's $15 billion economy.

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town, Catarina Demony in Lisbon and Benjamin Mallet in Paris; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, William Maclean, Hugh Lawson and Andrew Heavens)