Mozambique's antigovernment forces strongly deny that they are mistreating civilians in the civil war that has devastated that African country. The Washington representative of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement, or Renamo, charges that a United States government report issued last week is ``politically commissioned and politically motivated.''
The State Department report says Renamo forces have systematically killed and mistreated civilians in their battle against the government of Mozambique. It is based on in-depth interviews with nearly 200 Mozambican refugees and 50 relief workers in and around Mozambique.
Luis B. Serapiao, Renamo's representative, criticized the report's author for not visiting Renamo zones or talking with its representatives. He said Renamo welcomes visitors and quoted several Western press reports indicating good relations between Renamo and the inhabitants of areas in which it operates.
Mr. Serapiao argued that ``traumatized refugees'' can hardly be expected to speak ``confidentially and candidly'' with foreign researchers. He suggested that ``unsophisticated villagers'' would have trouble differentiating between Renamo and other attacking forces. He charged that Mozambique's government ``and its Marxist allies have embarked on a systematic program of pseudo-guerrilla operations to discredit Renamo politically ... and to alienate the populace from Renamo.''
Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says he has ``the highest confidence'' in the report and is ``not aware of anyone who has attempted a study as serious as this.'' Other officials say the report's author has a record of meticulous and careful assessments of refugee situations around the world. He was selected by the US Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, and only later was the Africa Bureau informed.
Officials in both offices express surprise in the findings. ``We'd assumed Renamo, government troops, and roving bandits all shared in the blame,'' says one. Officials stress the consistency of reports of Renamo abuses from refugees who had fled from different areas of Mozambique and who currently reside in South Africa, which has supported Renamo, as well as in countries sympathetic to Mozambique's government.
US policy toward Mozambique is politically sensitive. Some conservative legislators, among them Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, champion Renamo as freedom fighters combating a communist regime. Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana argues that the US should have contact with Renamo to promote negotiation
None of Renamo's congressional supporters have yet commented on the report. An aide to Mr. Helms says the senator is still studying it but at first glance he thought it was one-sided. The aide questioned the methodology, which led the report's author to project that Renamo may have killed up to 100,000 civilians on the basis of only about 200 interviews.
Another congressonal aide says that while there are problems with Renamo, there are also solid reports of government forces bombing villages thought to support the rebels and carrying out ``atrocities'' against civilians.
Reagan administration policy is to help Mozambique's government continue to move away from the Soviet bloc. Officials say Renamo does not have the international prestige or legitimacy of other resistance groups which the US supports. Other US allies agree. Britain, for example, helps train Mozambique's army.