Mozambique ex-rebels attack after tearing up 1992 peace deal

MAPUTO (AFP) - Mozambique's former rebel group Renamo staged a pre-dawn attack on a police station on Tuesday after declaring the end of a two decade-old peace deal that ended one of Africa's worst civil wars, officials and locals said.

Police fled their post in the central town of Maringue when Renamo fighters opened fire in an escalation of hostilities between the ex-rebels and Frelimo, the ruling party against which Renamo fought a bloody 16-year civil war that ended in 1992.

"Gunmen attacked the police station but fortunately there were no casualties because the policemen fled the post," Maringue's administrator Antonio Absalao told AFP.

The town is located about 35 kilometres from Renamo's military base, which government troops seized on Monday in an operation the ex-rebels claimed was aimed at killing their leader, Mr Afonso Dhlakama.

"The situation is horrible here. Early this morning, armed men supposed to be Renamo attacked, and it was a mess," said Mr Romao Martins, a local teacher.

"For one hour shooting could be heard from all directions and people fled from their homes," he said.

Schools have been shut amid fears of an escalation in violence.

A spokesman for the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), which became a political party with a parliamentary minority after the civil war, hinted that the movement was responsible for the attack.

"The president of Renamo has lost control of the situation and you cannot blame... (him) for what happens from here on," Mr Fernando Mazanga told AFP.

"The guerrillas are scattered and will attack without taking any orders," he said.

Renamo, which took up arms against the then-communist Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) after independence from Portugal in 1975, declared on Monday that it had pulled out of the peace agreement that ended that bitter conflict.

Return to war 'unlikely' Mazanga said Monday's attack on its base "marks the end of multiparty democracy" in Mozambique.

But the declaration should be taken with a "pinch of salt", South African Institute of International Affairs researcher Aditi Lalbahadur told AFP. "It's very unlikely that you are going to see a return to war." Mr Lalbahadur said that Renamo lacked the capacity to engage in a full-scale conflict and that war was not in the interests of the government with its more powerful armed forces.

"Mozambique is trying very much to attract foreign investment into the country so any type of political instability works to their disadvantage," Mr Lalbahadur added.