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Mozambique less appealing after attacks

After a fresh wave of violence in the country, investors are concerned about Mozambique.

FILE: A file picture taken in Gorongosa's mountains shows fighters of former Mozambican rebel movement Renamo receive military training. Jinty Jackson/AFP

BOBOLE, MOZAMBIQUE - At Bobole, a bustling refreshment stop on Mozambique's north-south highway, brightly-painted kiosks lined with bottles offer drinks to thirsty travellers while hawkers sell bananas, paw-paws and carrots in a typical African roadside scene.

But memories remain fresh of when Bobole lay in the "death corridor" of a civil war that cost nearly one million Mozambicans their lives until it ended two decades ago.

This year, a series of hit-and-run raids by opposition Renamo gunmen about 600 km further north has rekindled fears of a return to all-out conflict in what has become one of Africa's economic growth stars, where international investors are developing multi-billion-dollar coal and gas discoveries.

"What we saw here, we don't want our children to see," said Rogeria Mabjaia, who owns a kiosk in Bobole, an hour's drive north of the capital Maputo. She remembers hiding in the bush from the "bandidos", the name Mozambique's Frelimo government gave the Renamo guerrillas during the war of 1975-1992.

Back then, motorists and residents at Bobole faced ambushes day and night by armed raiders who stole livestock and food, burned homes and vehicles, and killed without mercy.

By comparison, the raids this April and June in central Sofala province look minor, although at least 11 soldiers and police and six civilians were killed.

Nevertheless they caught the Frelimo party government and its international backers by surprise, forcing a temporary suspension of some coal exports to the coast by rail, reducing north-south road traffic and causing tourist cancellations.

Unrest before local elections in November and a presidential vote next year could dislodge the former Portuguese colony from its pedestal as a "donors' darling", showered with foreign aid. It could also derail the expected resources investment bonanza in a country that remains desperately poor.

RHODESIAN CREATION

Renamo was formed as an anti-communist rebel group in the 1970s by the secret service of neighbouring Rhodesia, in retaliation for Mozambique sheltering guerrillas fighting the white-minority government of what is now Zimbabwe.

It was later adopted by the apartheid-era South African military but abandoned the war in a 1992 peace pact to become Mozambique's leading opposition party.

Renamo has lost every election to Frelimo since then, but accuses President Armando Guebuza and his ruling party of hogging political and economic power through a one-sided electoral system and by harassing its opponents.

Mozambique needs some kind of accommodation, said Leopoldo Amaral, human rights programme manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) in Johannesburg, a pro-democracy network founded by financier George Soros.

"They are at a crossroads. If they don't reach a deal, things are likely to degenerate," he said. "You don't want a militarised country that will scare businessmen, investors."

Brazil's Vale, London-listed Rio Tinto, Italy's Eni and US oil firm Anadarko are among the major investors in Mozambique looking to develop some of the world's largest untapped reserves of coal and gas.

"A SCENARIO OF WAR"?

After first ignoring Renamo's demands for a more balanced electoral body and integration of its fighters into the army and police, the Frelimo government opened talks after the attacks.

"For Frelimo, a military solution is not desirable," party spokesman Damiao Jose told Reuters. Nevertheless, the army destroyed a Renamo bush camp in Sofala province on 6 July.

Longtime Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, now 60, returned in October with a band of guerrilla veterans to his civil war base in the forested Gorongosa region of central Mozambique.

This seemed a largely symbolic gesture. Few diplomats and analysts believe Dhlakama, whose militia is thought to number at least several hundred, has the capacity, support, or even the will, to resume all-out war.

But in a country where infrastructure is poor, a few insurgents can disrupt road and rail corridors through the thick bush of Sofala province that link the central and northern interior with the coast and the south.

If this chokehold is tightened, it could effectively cut Mozambique in half in terms of land transport.

Around Bobole, where abandoned shells of homes remain in the bush as a reminder of the war, there is heartfelt opposition to any slide back to conflict.

"Both sides should talk, they should be thinking about us," Mabjaia said at her kiosk. "Mozambique just wants peace".

Renamo accuses Guebuza's government of "designing a scenario of war" by sending troops to Gorongosa to surround the area where Dhlakama is camped.

Renamo spokesman Fernando Mazanga said Dhlakama's return to his Sathunjira base on 17 October last year followed threats and harassment by Frelimo security forces and militants.

He cited the storming by police in March last year of Renamo's headquarters in the northern city of Nampula where 300 armed supporters were based, according to police. At that time, Dhlakama was also living in Nampula.

"Renamo has been patient for 20 years," Mazanga said.

Frelimo, the former liberation movement which has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975, jettisoned Marxism-Leninism in 1990 to embrace multi-party politics. It crushed Renamo in the last 2009 election by winning more than a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Dhlakama, who has challenged all his election losses, rejected the 2009 result as fraudulent but his party held on to 51 seats in parliament.

Frelimo accuses Renamo of resorting to violence to make up for its political weakness. "Renamo must change its attitude and conform to the rules of play of democracy," spokesman Jose said.

Authorities arrested Renamo's information chief Jeronimo Malagueta last month after he said the group would target "logistics". He faces charges of inciting violence.

Guebuza and Frelimo are expected to try to pacify Dhlakama and his Renamo partisans with a settlement that includes more state jobs and patronage, but the two sides are still bickering over where their leaders should meet.

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