Mozambican Army gains as neighbors lend increasing aid. Government now has Malawi's support in drive against rebels

Bolstered by growing support and aggressiveness from its neighbors, Mozambique is slowly pushing back South African-backed rebels in three northern provinces. At least 600 Tanzanian troops have joined 7,000 Zimbabwean troops and Mozambique's 45,000-strong Army in the decade-old fight against the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) guerrillas.

Officials of the leftist government here say that neighboring Malawi has stopped aiding the right-wing rebels and is seeking to curb their operations on its soil, which juts into Mozambique. ``Malawi is at our side, and we are cooperating in the fight against the bandits,'' President Joaquim Chissano said recently. ``Today the terrorists are losing more of their external bases.''

Western military sources in the region confirm that Malawi signed an agreement with Mozambique last December to work together against Renamo, although they question whether Malawi's small Army can control Renamo activities on its soil. ``Malawi's Army is very inexperienced,'' said one source. ``It will take some time before this cooperation really begins to work.''

Lt. Gen. Armando Guebuza, Mozambique's transport minister, says that Malawi ``is trying to work to control the bandits'' because it needs Mozambique's Nacala railway as a foreign trade route to the Indian Ocean.

The Army of the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) receives critical support from Britain, which is doubling its commitment to train Frelimo commanders, and from the Soviet Union, which still provides the bulk of the Army's military hardware.

The poorly organized Army has stumbled badly in the northern part of Tete Province. Renamo raids have sent hundreds of refugees into the cities.

President Chissano is carrying out a modest reorganization of the Army high command. The most significant changes have been the replacement of Col. Gen. Sebastiao Mabote as chief of staff by Lt. Gen. Armando Panguene. And one of Frelimo's brightest military leaders, Lt. Gen. Domingos Fondo, has been sent to take command of affairs in Tete Province.

Frelimo has made some important gains against Renamo since the rebels stunned Mozambique last September and October by taking several strategic towns in the lower Zambezi River valley. Since then, Frelimo has retaken much of eastern Zamb'ezia Province, reopening a major highway between the provincial capital of Quelimane and the central town of Mocuba, site of the provincial military garrison.

In January, the Army thwarted a major South African effort to resupply Renamo units based near the sea in Zamb'ezia Province, according to Chissano. And early this month, the Army recaptured three towns in the lower Zambezi River valley. This move has given Frelimo control over most of the lower Zambezi valley. And according to the government relief agency, food is being airlifted to nearly 30,000 people in the area.

To support the Army's current offensive in Zamb'ezia Province, Tanzanian troops are being airlifted in. How much actual fighting has taken place, however, is unknown. One Western military expert said, ``If you move a lot of troops in and get some outside help, Renamo are not the kind of people who are going to stand and fight.''

By far the biggest blow to Renamo came early last month, when Zimbabwe's Army launched a ground and air assault to recapture a key railway bridge over the Zambezi River and five river towns in the provinces of Tete and Sofala, apparently with little Frelimo support.

Renamo was thought to be planning to set up permanent military bases in the area, from which it could launch attacks on the Beira Corridor, a 196-mile-long railway, road, and oil-pipeline system that links Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean.

Observers say that the Zimbabwean Air Force showed surprising range in the attack, venturing several hundred miles north from its bases along the Beira Corridor. Some analysts and officials say this could indicate that the elite paratroop corps is already using the 10 Agusta-Bell 418 troop carrier helicopters that US and British military attach'es say it purchased last year.

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