Mozambique rebels' `image' war. Changes in guerrilla group's leadership, tactics seen as effort to improve international image

THE guerrilla force fighting to overthrow the Marxist government of Mozambique appears to have opened a new campaign -- one aimed not at military targets, but at improving the group's international image. The objective appears to be to give the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) a more ``African'' image in the hopes that this will help attract more foreign and domestic support.

Renamo's widely acknowledged links with the government of South Africa have made many would-be foreign supporters hesitant to deal with the group, despite the appeal to many of its staunch anti-Marxist rhetoric.

In what observers say is an apparent attempt to try and win more friends abroad, Renamo has made a key change in its leadership. In July, Secretary-General Evo Fernandes, who is of Indian descent, was demoted. This move, analysts say, is likely to enhance the power of Alfonso Dhlakama, the black president and commander in chief of Renamo.

Because of his Indian background, Mr. Fernandes is seen by some Westerners, who are otherwise sympathetic to Renamo's cause, as not ``African'' enough to represent an indigenous anticommunist rebel movement. Days after Fernandes's removal, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank with close links to the Reagan administration, invited Renamo representatives to Washington for consultations.

Fernandes's demotion may also help the rebels to attract support from Mozambique's small businessmen and commercial farmers. These groups reportedly perceived Fernandes as too pro-Portuguese and favored a more ``nationalist'' image for the movement. Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975. But the businessmen and farmers are known to disagree with the rebels' promise to return nationalized properties, such as apartment buildings and plantations, to their former (Portuguese) owners.

Renamo was founded in 1977 by a group of dissatisfied former Army officers of the Frelimo government. Frelimo (the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) came to power after independence and attempted programs of radical social transformation that alienated some deeply traditional Mozambicans.

The dissident Frelimo officers were organized into a military force by the Rhodesian intelligence service, which apparently intended to use them to monitor and harass Mozambique-based guerrillas fighting to oust Rhodesia's white minority government. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, it is widely believed that South Africa became Renamo's primary foreign patron. In 1984, South Africa and Mozambican President Samora Machel's government signed the the Nkomati Accord, in which both sides pledged to cut off assistance to each other's internal opposition movements. Despite the accord, many observers say, South Africa still gives some support to the Mozambican rebels.

President Machel is also struggling to revive Mozambique's virtually moribund economy. One government official admits that economic activity fell by one-third between 1982 and 1985. Because the national currency is almost worthless, peasants refuse to cultivate crops unless assured of trade goods in return. And much of the cotton-growing land lies in areas heavily infiltrated by Renamo guerrillas.

Renamo President Dhlakama himself is little-known outside Mozambique. A former Frelimo ordnance officer, he was educated at a Roman Catholic mission near his home city of Beira. Because he is soft-spoken and travels only infrequently outside Mozambique, he has always seemed overshadowed by the rebels' former secretaries-general, Orlando Cristina and, more recently, Mr. Fernandes.

But when Fernandes appeared in Lisbon after meeting Dhlakama in Mozambique, he acknowledged that Renamo's president had demoted him and that he accepted the decision. A group, known as CUNIMO, which had earlier complained that Fernandes's influence in Renamo favored foreign -- namely, South African and Portuguese -- interests then pledged loyalty to the Renamo military command and its president.

Both announcements, analysts here say, reinforced Dhlakama's authority. But, despite Fernandes's official demotion it is unclear how much his stock has in fact fallen.

Inside Mozambique too, observers say, rebel tactics are changing. Though still a ragtag army operating primarily in the countryside, the rebels have stepped up their activities in the bush and now regularly attack urban targets.

But the rebels' preconditions for cease-fire talks remain unchanged: free elections and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Mozambique. In addition to Soviet, Cuban, and East German advisers, there are more than 12,000 Zimbabwean, Tanzanian, and Zambian troops in Mozambique.

The rebels drew encouragement from a pastoral letter issued in June by the Episcopal Conference of Mozambique. In it, the Catholic bishops appealed to the Mozambican government and the rebels to end the war in the famine-plagued country of 13 million people. The letter came soon after the prelates' conspicuous absence from official ``Peace Day'' ceremonies in the capital of Maputo, and referred to Renamo forces as ``guerrillas'' rather than ``armed bandits,'' the officially sanctioned term.

Some observers see the letter as a victory in the rebels' public relations war.

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