Mozambique rebels gaining. Strategy of economic destruction key to rebel successes

Mozambican troops gaze down at the muddy Zambezi River as armored vehicles filled with Zimbabwean troops roar over the last major bridge linking north and south Mozambique that is still in government hands. The Zimbabwean troops, about 600 strong, are the only reason that guerrilla attacks have not closed the strategic road through this northwestern province that connects Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The highway itself is one of the few major roadways that have survived the decade-old war between the leftist Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) government and the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo). Renamo is an insurgent movement formed by Rhodesian intelligence agents in 1976 and backed by South Africa since 1980.

Tete, a northwestern provincial capital, lies in the heart of one of Africa's most ferocious guerrilla wars. As in the neighboring north-central provinces of Zambezia and Sofala, most cities remain in the hands of the leftist Frelimo government, while Renamo rebels roam the countryside intent on disabling the nation's economy.

Renamo's recent efforts have been largely successful. This year more than one-third of Mozambique's 14 million people, among the poorest in the world, face severe food shortages. At least 100,000 deaths, $4 billion in economic damage, and at least half a million refugees are the price that Mozambique's government believes it has paid.

Despite the destruction, both the government and the rebels vow to continue the fight to the end, though the possibility of an military victory by either side appears remote.

After a string of victories since late September, Renamo controls much of the lower Zambezi River valley, from just below the Malawi border to the Indian Ocean.

Mozambican officials warn privately that Renamo appears to be trying to cut off northern Mozambique from the south.

Frelimo suffered one of its greatest defeats when one of Africa's longest railway and road bridges, linking the towns of Dona and Sena across the Zambezi, fell to Renamo in late September. The battle over the bridge sent hundreds of Frelimo troops and 50,000 civilians fleeing north into Malawi. And it gave Renamo greater control of a huge swath of territory stretching north from the Gorongosa mountain in central Sofala province to Malawi's border.

The government and other southern African states accuse Malawi, which juts down into the heart of Mozambique, of collaborating with South Africa by providing the rebels with crucial support - such as bases and supply depots.

Since mid-September, when Mozambique began threatening Malawi with border closures unless it reined in Renamo, ``the bandits have launched a massive infiltration,'' says the governor of Tete Province.

Malawi's administration, the only African nation other than Swaziland, to have diplomatic relations with South Africa, strongly denies charges that it backs Renamo.

Most Western diplomats and military analysts believe that the 20,000-strong Renamo operates from Malawi, with or without official support. Renamo rebels, these analysts say, can hit government positions and then seek refuge and resupply in Malawian territory.

Although Renamo is active throughout Mozambique, it has scored its biggest gains during the past two years in the provinces bordering Malawi: Tete, Zambezia, and Sofala.

An estimated 7,000 Zimbabwean troops back Frelimo's 45,000-man Army, especially along the Beira Corridor, a railway, road, and oil pipeline system that links Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean. The corridor is considered southern Africa's best hope for breaking South Africa's virtual monopoly on the region's shipping.

In fact, Mozambique's transport routes, say some analysts, are what this war is all about. If they functioned properly, the nation's railways and ports would allow southern Africa to ship its foreign trade without South Africa's services. Renamo, they add, is Pretoria's insurance that in the short-term, its neighbors must depend on South African ports.

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has pledged that his country will fight to ``the last man'' to back Frelimo.

The new Renamo gains have sparked speculation that the highly regarded Zimbabwe National Army will play a bigger role yet. Western military analysts expect a Zimbabwean-led drive in Tete Province by the end of year before rains limit the Army's mobility.

But most analysts agree that a reinvigorated Frelimo fighting force is the key to the government's long-term future.

To renew these forces, sources say, the new President, Joaquim Chissano, must move aside incompetent Army commanders and defeat one of Mozambique's biggest problems: mismanagement in the military.

Many Mozambican soldiers have been demoralized.

Weeks go by during which they do not receive food rations and essential military and personal supplies.

The $300 million that the desperately poor government plans to spend on the war this year should, however, be enough to feed and clothe the Army, military observers say.

``The enlisted men take a lot of criticism for running when the fighting gets hot,'' one foreign military analyst says. ``But there is not a soldier in the world who will fight if he has not had a proper meal in two weeks, no matter what the cause.''

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