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Southern Africa eyes Pretoria-linked Mozambique rebels closely

Mozambique's National Resistance Movement (Renamo) rebels believe that the death of President Samora Machel this week is the final nail in the ruling government's coffin. The President's death in an aircraft crash Sunday night came amid a Renamo military offensive against Maputo. In recent weeks, the rebels have captured strategic towns that link northern and southern Mozambique and that control the railway from Zimbabwe to Beira's port.

Renamo is backed by South Africa and claims to have 20,000 armed troops. Lisbon-based spokesmen for the rebel organization say the recent offensive has also left 300 government and supporting Zimbabwean troops dead. Unless there is further foreign military intervention to protect the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) government, it will soon collapse, they add.

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Mozambique's economic situation is as unsteady as its military situation. Last summer the Prime Minister said gross national product had fallen by a third since 1982. The country needs some 300,000 tons of food aid and has close to 2 million displaced peasants. In addition, South Africa's recent decision to repatriate some 100,000 Mozambican migrant workers will cut foreign currency earnings by a third next year.

Mozambique desperately needs to end its civil war. Analysts fear that if Renamo secures the military victory it is predicting, Frelimo will turn the tables, and the war will simply go on.

There is also a possibility of new foreign military intervention by Cuba or by neighboring African states such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, or Tanzania. Zimbabwe has become disillusioned with the performance of Frelimo forces and has begun to reduce an estimated 7,000-man force deployed to support Frelimo troops.

A Renamo victory could have major repercussions for the entire southern African region. First, it would provide Pretoria with an ally -- at least temporarily -- as well as an avenue for evading economic sanctions by directing trade through the port of Maputo.

It would seriously inhibit the efforts of six of South Africa's neighbors, known as the ``front-line'' states, to impose their own economic sanctions on Pretoria. It would also thwart their efforts to reduce their dependency on South African transport services by opening up the Beira corridor, a main road and rail-trade route that runs through Mozambique. Indeed, one leading aid official said yesterday that donors with pledges to support the Beira corridor had already begun to put plans on the back burner, pending developments in Mozambique.

The efforts of Zimbabwe and Zambia, particularly, would go down the drain. Zimbabwe relies on South Africa for 85 percent of its trade, and Zambia for 60 percent.

There is a very real fear in some front-line states that a Renamo victory would encourage Pretoria's hawks to intensify other regional destabilization policies.

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And, it is doubtful that either Zimbabwe or Zambia is prepared to be drawn further into the Renamo conflict to offset any actions by Pretoria.

Although no one will publicly admit it, there is a growing feeling -- especially since President Machel's death -- that the most viable outcome in Mozambique would be some form of national unity government that included both Frelimo and Renamo. Any other solution, it is argued here, would mean a continued guerrilla war within Mozambique spilling over into neighboring territories.

A student demonstration here this week against South African, Malawian, and US facilities and personnel was sparked by suspicion that South Africa had a hand in Machel's death. It is an example of how internal conflicts spill over into neighboring states.

Diplomats and political analysts here stress that whatever the new order in Mozambique, it will be in no position to alienate any of its neighbors.

Possibly the worst outcome for the region would be a continuation of Mozambique's civil war, say analysts.

Present indications suggest that Machel's death has swung the regional balance -- temporarily -- in favor of Pretoria. If Renamo does secure the military victory it is seeking, it could be that the front-line states will be forced to adopt a more moderate anti-South African stance.

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