(Bloomberg) -- Islamic State-linked fighters carried out their deadliest attack on Mozambican troops since 2021, according to a researcher, ratcheting up security concerns ahead of TotalEnergies SE’s planned return to build a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project. 

Fighters raided the northeast town of Mucojo, 136 kilometers (85 miles) south of the LNG project, on the weekend. They killed as many as 25 government forces, according to radio station Zumbo FM, which is based in the provincial capital of Pemba, and other local news reports. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assault and published photos of troops it said its militants killed.

The causalities were the highest in a single battle for Mozambique’s defense forces since 2021, according to Tomás Queface, analyst and investigator at Cabo Ligado, a website that tracks the conflict. Tomás Bandae, Macomia’s district administrator, acknowledged the attack in comments streamed by Maputo-based newspaper O Pais, without saying how many people died.

Mozambique’s Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment, beyond acknowledging receipt.

“The insurgents are gaining more strength,” Queface said by phone from Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. “It’s very worrying.”

A string of attacks since December has marked a resurgence in violence after Mozambican and regional forces last year announced major gains in the six-year war that’s left at least 4,849 people dead. Government forces had killed senior leaders, and dislodged the militants from hideouts deep in the forests of Cabo Delgado. The improved security situation provided a TotalEnergies-led consortium with the confidence to consider resuming the gas project by the middle of this year after halting it in 2021.  

Read More: TotalEnergies Aims to Restart Mozambique LNG Project by Mid-Year

The return of TotalEnergies would also help clear the path for a group led by ExxonMobil Corp. to approve an even-bigger LNG project in the region.

Insurgents have also made a thrust into southern Cabo Delgado in recent weeks, ambushing civilians and security forces, according to Cabo Ligado. 

The coastal stretch around Mucojo has growing significance for the insurgency, which Rwandan troops forced southward after they joined the war in 2021. Rwanda has been responsible for protecting the area around the LNG project and the town of Mocimboa da Praia to the south, the previous epicenter of the conflict.

Separately, a regional bloc, which Rwanda isn’t part of, in 2021 also sent hundreds of troops to help Mozambican forces secure areas including Macomia district, which includes Mucojo. The 16-member Southern Africa Development Community plans on withdrawing that deployment by July, around the same time that TotalEnergies hopes to resume work. 

--With assistance from Paul Richardson and Gordon Bell.

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