The charred hulks of 90 lorries, passenger buses, and cars strewn along this central north-south highway bear grim testimony to the steady march of Mozambique's 12-year-old war toward the capital, Maputo, just 50 miles south of here. The wreckage is what is left of two convoys which came under attack on Oct. 29 by an estimated 400 Mozambican rebels. When the eight-hour assault was over, 278 people had been killed, the government said, and hundreds more wounded.
It was the biggest massacre in Mozambique since the July bloodletting in Homoine, in Inhambane Province, in which 424 people were reportedly killed.
As it did then, Mozambique's government blamed the South African-backed rebels of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo) for this latest slaughter.
Renamo spokesmen in Lisbon have denied responsibility for the attack, blaming ``dissident'' government troops. Western diplomatic sources, however, scoffed at the rebel denial.
``Whenever they kill a lot of civilians, they say `it wasn't us.' It doesn't hold any water,'' said one Western official.
Nevertheless, the assault demonstrated that Renamo, following stinging defeats to government forces earlier this year in the central province of Zamb'ezia, appears determined to cut off transport routes to the capital, Maputo. A rebel mine halted traffic on the southern rail line to neighboring Swaziland on Oct. 28.
The politburo of the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) party accused South Africa of masterminding the new rebel offensive, and said the goal of the attacks was to ``sow fear and insecurity among the people of the south and to isolate the capital from the rest of the country.''
About 100 Frelimo solders were reportedly escorting the convoys. But they were no match for the two Renamo columns that opened up with mortars, bazookas and automatic rifle fire. After routing the Frelimo escort the rebel gunmen looted and set fire to the vehicles, including at least ten passenger buses.
The government has not revealed how many of its troops died in the battle.
But a soldier on patrol Sunday said, ``It was not a small number.''
Renamo rebels hit a convoy in the exact same place on Oct. 16, killing 53 people. Through both incidents, a communal village, just a few meters west of the road, has escaped unscathed, leading some Mozambican officials to suspect that the villagers, willingly or out of fear, provided the rebels with sanctuary.
Military sources said that a large Renamo force operates from bases in the coastal area of Calanga, about 30 miles east of here, where they are allegedly supplied by South African vessels.
The highway here is the most important link between Maputo and the southern provinces of Gaza and Inhambane.
It is key to the government's Western-backed drive to reactivate Mozambique's moribund economy by transporting export crops and farm produce to the capital and consumer goods back to farmers.
International aid agencies also use the road to ship relief food and supplies to victims of drought and war to the north.
Several of their vehicles, including ones used by Care and the International Red Cross, were destroyed in the attack, as was a truck donated to Mozambique's private sector by the United States Agency for International Development.
One local truck driver said that small Renamo units attack the road at least twice a week and questioned the sincerity of the government's commitment to keep the road open.
``Many people do not understand why Frelimo does not defend this area better,'' he said. ``If this continues, there will be no traffic on this road, nothing.''