Mozambique unrest turns key highway into 'ghost road'

Adrien Barbier
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A picture taken on October 17, 2013 shows Mozambican government soldiers patrolling an area in Gorongosa

A picture taken on October 17, 2013 shows Mozambican government soldiers patrolling an area in Gorongosa (AFP Photo/Maria Celeste Mac'Arthur)

Maputo (AFP) - Mozambique's arterial north-south highway has earned the moniker of a "ghost road" with former rebels staging regular raids ahead of a threatened power grab in the country's centre this month.

"We registered eight attacks by Renamo gunmen last week, which caused a total of three deaths -- including a three-year-old -- and 23 injured," police spokesman Inacio Dina told a news conference in the capital Maputo on Tuesday.

Renamo, which waged a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992, has refused to accept the results of 2014 elections when it was beaten once more by the Frelimo party, in power since independence 40 years ago.

Renamo alleged fraud and sporadic fighting broke out in June last year.

In December, party leader Afonso Dhlakama warned that Renamo planned to seize control of six provinces of central and northern Mozambique, where he won a majority in the presidential elections.

There are a total of 11 provinces in Mozambique.

Dhlakama said on Monday that Renamo would take control of at least some districts by the end of this month.

Attacks have increased since February, with daily clashes between government forces and Renamo reported on social media and by the independent press, particularly in the centre of the country.

On the main north-south highway civilian vehicles travel through the worst areas in convoys under military protection, and many foreign embassies now advise their nationals to avoid the route.

"The army is positioned to ensure the safety of travellers and tourists who circulate in this region," police spokesman Dina told AFP. "Mozambique is not at war."

The resource-rich but poor southern African nation is at pains to reassure investors and tourists that it is stable again.

But not all Mozambicans agree.

"Though clashes only take place in some areas, people are dying, refugees are fleeing," Fernanda Lobato of the civil society organisation Olho do Cidadao told AFP.

"We have to face reality. Here in Maputo, in the south, we feel nothing, but there is no doubt that the country is at war."

- 'Conflict risk alert' -

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 11,500 Mozambicans have sought refuge in neighbouring Malawi, with 250 people arriving daily.

On March 1, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group put Mozambique on "conflict risk alert".

Renamo claims that it has also come under attack by government forces, with a wave of kidnappings and killings targeting its local representatives this year.

Local media say the main highway, the NR1, has become a "ghost road", as only three or four convoys managing to get through each day.

"I hope that peace will return because all of this is bad," traveller Eugenio Lasmim told Diario de Mocambique newspaper after waiting five hours without food or water for the military escort.

"Not all of us can afford to travel by plane, and travelling by car has become absolute chaos," he said.

"It's the people who are suffering and we want the government and the Renamo leader to meet, discuss and bring back peace," said Faniquisse Jolinda, another traveller.

Even the convoys come under attack, and passenger coaches, which Renamo suspects are being used to transport armed troops, are also targeted.

Mozambican political analyst Egidio Vaz said Renamo's discontent stems from the failure to implement peace agreements signed in 1992 after the civil war and more recently in 2014.

"A resumption of dialogue is possible only if President (Felipe) Nyusi is able to guarantee security for Dhlakama, who has been personally targeted several times in recent months," he said.

Nyusi has repeatedly requested a meeting with Dhlakama. But Renamo says any meeting should be under international mediation, and that it intends to negotiate only after it rules over some districts, as it did during the civil war.

Among major issues that Renamo wants resolved is the failure to include former rebel fighters in the regular army and police.

The party, which is the main opposition group in the national parliament, also wants the formerly Marxist Frelimo party to loosen the grip over state apparatus.