Eni is “within weeks” of sealing a multi-billion dollar deal to sell a stake in its Mozambique operations, with ExxonMobil favourite to buy the assets.

The Italian group has been seeking a partner to help bring Mozambique’s vast offshore gas resources to the global market and ExxonMobil is seen as the most likely candidate because it also has exploration licences in the southeast African country.

Claudio Descalzi, Eni chief executive, told the Financial Times the long-awaited transaction was “very close” but declined to comment on the identity of the buyer.

Bankers and industry figures said it would be a big surprise if it was not ExxonMobil.

His comments came as Eni unveiled better-than-expected fourth quarter results which included the Italian group’s first quarterly profit in 18 months.

Eni wants a partner with strong financial and technical capacity to help develop gas fields in its Area 4 block off the coast of Mozambique and the onshore infrastructure needed to export the output as Liquefied Natural Gas.

Mozambique’s location beside the Indian Ocean makes it ideally placed to serve the growing LNG markets of Asia but there have been many political, economic and practical hurdles to development in one of the world’s poorest nations.

The stake sale is expected to be followed later this year by the final go-ahead for Eni’s multi-billion dollar Coral South field — the first part of the Area 4 block due for development. BP last year agreed a 20-year deal to buy the entire output from Coral South.

Eni holds a 50 per cent stake in the Area 4 block. The other half is owned by CNPC of China, Galp Energia of Portugal, Kogas of South Korea and Mozambique’s national oil company, Empresa Nacional de Hidrocarbonetos.

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