* Rebel group launches raid on Chevron gas platform, workers say
* Cabinda government insists FLEC is spent force
* Heavy security around foreign oil compound
* Secessionist leader died in Paris this month
By Ed Cropley
CABINDA, Angola, June 14 (Reuters) - Men claiming to belong to a rebel group fighting for independence of the oil-rich Angolan province of Cabinda boarded an offshore Chevron gas platform in late May and threatened foreign petroleum workers, two industry sources said.
The incident is a rare sign of the simmering instability in Cabinda, a heavily guarded territory that accounts for half the oil output from Africa’s top petroleum producer.
Chevron, Cabinda’s biggest foreign oil firm, declined to comment, while provincial governor Aldina da Lomba Catembo said the group - the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) - “does not exist”.
A Paris-based spokesman for FLEC-FAC, a prominent FLEC faction that announced the resumption of an armed independence struggle in February, said it was not responsible.
Densely forested Cabinda is separated from the rest of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has a distinct ethnic make-up that has fuelled a low-intensity guerrilla secessionist campaign since independence from Portugal in 1975.
A heavy security presence and the location of nearly all oil production offshore have ensured Angola’s energy sector has avoided the widespread militancy that has blighted Nigeria’s Niger Delta for decades.
However, the May incident casts doubt on Luanda’s assertion that FLEC has fizzled out since a 2007 peace agreement.
The group of five militants, travelling by speedboat, boarded the off-shore natural gas platform two weeks ago and told foreign oil workers they should leave Cabinda, two sources with knowledge of the incident told Reuters.
“They were there for about an hour,” one source said. “Afterwards, they got back into the boat and disappeared.”
Since the incident, the source said the Angolan navy had stepped up patrols around the dozens of oil and gas rigs that lie off the coast of Cabinda, their flares clearly visible at night.
Analysts said the death in Paris this month of 88-year-old FLEC-FAC founder Nzita Henriques Tiago raised the possibility of splinter groups competing for influence and prestige within Cabinda’s fractious anti-Angolan movement.
Since 2000, FLEC has kidnapped only a handful of foreign oil workers but the group hit international headlines in 2010 when gunmen shot up a bus carrying the Togo soccer team to an Africa Cup of Nations match, killing the side’s assistant coach, spokesman and driver.
FLEC said the attack was aimed at the military convoy escorting the coach, not the Togolese.
There has been nothing similar since but the authorities remain on alert, with soldiers stationed at government-backed construction sites along the coast and around the barbed-wire fenced compound where foreign oil workers live.
Foreigners going to Cabinda, which remains one of Angola’s poorest provinces despite its vast hydrocarbon wealth, have to obtain special permission from the interior ministry.
“These guys don’t take any chances,” one foreign oil worker in Cabinda said of the security set-up.
Paris-based FLEC-FAC spokesman Jean-Claude Nzita said in an email the group had never threatened to attack oil platforms, which it described as “assets necessary for the development of our territory and the good of our people”.
Control Risks Angola expert Barnaby Fletcher said FLEC did not appear to be united behind Nzita Henriques Tiago’s son, Emmanuel Nzita Wa Nzita, as new leader of a group whose action has been limited to ambushes of military patrols in remote parts of the bush.
“An attack on a oil installation would be a surprising development,” Fletcher said.
“There could be elements within the group attempting to prove their capacity in advance of a leadership struggle, or they could be acting without any central command. The line between militant and criminal is also often fairly thin.”
The province of 700,000 people suffers from widespread poverty, even by Angolan standards and its plight worsened this year as foreign oil companies laid off thousands of workers to cut costs in the wake of the collapse in crude prices.
Another problem is its geographic isolation, meaning nearly everything has to be imported by road through DRC to the south or Congo Republic to the north, or via Cabinda’s notoriously unreliable port.
Without adequate protection from the Atlantic swell, ships can wait up to a month to dock, sending freight costs soaring and making many basic goods twice as expensive for Cabindans as the rest of the country, residents say.
Governor Catembo conceded there might still be “some people with guns” who were unhappy with the status quo in Cabinda, but insisted that FLEC did not represent any threat to overall stability.
“FLEC does not exist. It is an old topic,” she told Reuters.
One of the workers caught up in the May rig incursion scoffed at the assertion.
“FLEC is dead? Yeah, right,” the worker said. (Additional reporting by Herculano Coroado; Editing by Susan Thomas)