Mozambique's president and the leader of the Renamo opposition signed a peace accord on Thursday to end years of hostilities that followed a 15-year civil war.
The former rebel group's remaining fighters are disarming just weeks before a visit by Pope Francis and a national election that will test the now-political rivals' new resolve.
The permanent cease-fire is the culmination of years of negotiations to end fighting that has flared several times in the more than 25 years since the end of the civil war in which an estimated 1 million people died.
Pope Francis has said he is coming to promote reconciliation in the southern African country of some 30 million people. The Catholic church's Sant'Egidio community helped to negotiate the war's end in 1992 and the church has encouraged peace since then.
President Filipe Nyusi and Renamo leader Ossufo Momade signed, shook hands, and embraced at Gorongosa National Park, near the Renamo headquarters where the group has maintained an armed base for more than 40 years. Of the more than 5,200 fighters who are disarming, some 800 are coming down from their camp on Mount Gorongosa and register for employment at the wildlife park.
The accord will be followed by another agreement to be signed in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, on Aug. 6 pledging peace in the October 15 national elections. Previous elections have been marked by violence and Renamo allegations that the ruling Frelimo party rigged the results.
Renamo, which is the Portuguese acronym for National Resistance of Mozambique, became an opposition party after the civil war but had never fully disarmed until now.
"This agreement has historic significance because up 'til now Mozambique has had an opposition party in parliament that also has armed fighters in the countryside. Now there can be peace," said Neha Sanghrajka, a negotiator of the deal. Unlike in previous peace efforts the important issues have been implemented before the signing, she said.
The issues include an amnesty for rebel fighters that Mr. Nyusi signed earlier this week and a constitutional amendment that stipulates provincial governors will be elected rather than appointed by the central government.
There is "tremendous symbolic value" in having the signing at Gorongosa, said fellow negotiator Swiss Ambassador Mirko Manzoni, who is also an envoy of the United Nations secretary-general.
"Gorongosa was where the war started and now it is where it ends," Mr. Manzoni said, pointing out that the mountain is in a strategic location in the center of Mozambique. "This agreement gives people hope that there will be lasting peace."
Renamo's longtime leader Afonso Dhlakama died in Gorongosa in 2018. Mr. Momade succeeded him and is responsible for concluding the peace agreements.
"We will no longer commit the mistakes of the past," Mr. Momade said this week as Renamo fighters turned in their arms. "We are for a humanized and dignified reintegration and we want the international community to help make that a reality."
Mr. Momade also said he hoped Gorongosa Park would help Renamo's ex-combatants and their families re-enter society.
In recognition of its pivotal role, Mozambique's president declared Gorogosa to be a peace park.
After falling into neglect during the civil war, the park that sprawls over 1,570 square miles has been re-invigorated with help from American philanthropist Greg Carr. He has said he was inspired after former South African president Nelson Mandela told him that wildlife parks should be places of national reconciliation and development.
The park also has helped surrounding communities recover after Cyclone Idai devastated large parts of central Mozambique in March and killed more than 600 people. More than 80,000 people are receiving food aid and help in planting crops, while aid groups warn that many others in the region face a hunger crisis in the months ahead.
"I'm excited at what the park can do in the next five years and beyond to help keep the peace," Mr. Carr said. "We need the park to deliver opportunities and benefits to the demobilized fighters to sustain the peace. Now it's go, go, go for us to build on the achievement of this peace agreement."
This story was reported by The Associated Press