MAPUTO/JOHANNESBURG Mozambique's opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama, who is fleeing government forces in a remote jungle region, may have also exiled himself to the political wilderness by abandoning a 1992 peace pact that ended the country's civil war.
His Renamo former rebel group, which embraced multi-party politics after the deal, said on Monday it was annulling the accord with the government after the army overran Dhlakama's base in the Gorongosa forest of central Sofala province.
Suspected Renamo guerrillas fired on a police station at Maringue, just north of the Gorongosa district early on Tuesday, local media said.
But no casualties were reported and many doubt Dhlakama still has the power to drag Mozambique back into full-blown conflict or derail its trajectory as a magnet for investors chasing huge coal and offshore gas reserves.
Dhlakama, who has struggled to recover from a string of election defeats by the ruling Frelimo party, is widely seen as a spent political force whose current military strength is a shadow of the destructive guerrilla movement he once commanded.
Complaining that Frelimo, the former liberation movement that has ruled Mozambique since independence from Portugal in 1975, has monopolised political and economic power, Dhlakama had already withdrawn from normal politics. He was threatening to boycott and disrupt municipal elections next month.
He had increased his political isolation by installing himself a year ago with veteran guerrilla comrades in a former Renamo civil war stronghold in Gorongosa, a remote area of dense forest some 600 km (375 miles) north of the capital Maputo. He cited concerns for his safety as the reason for the move.
"Dhlakama has backed himself into a dead end and doesn't have a way out," said Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer at Britain's Open University and an expert on Mozambique.
Both the United States, an important donor, and former colonial ruler Portugal expressed concern about the renewed violence. Washington urged former civil war foes Renamo and Frelimo to settle their differences through dialogue.
LITTLE APPETITE FOR WAR
Renamo spokesman Fernando Mazanga declared "peace is over" when he announced the abandonment of the 1992 accord on Monday.
But he did not say Renamo was resuming all-out rebellion or that it would give up the 51 seats it still holds in the Frelimo-dominated 250-seat national parliament.
Frelimo spokesman Edmundo Galiza Matos Jr urged Renamo to stay in the assembly.
"Mozambicans want peace," he said, adding the party remained ready to discuss Renamo's persistent demands for reforms to the electoral process.
"A war at this stage would destroy all the development achievements the country has made so far," said 51-year-old civil servant Ricardo Mandlate in Maputo, echoing the sentiments of most ordinary Mozambicans.
"Although there's still a lot of poverty, the nation has made progress since peace was made and the politicians should reach an agreement," he added.
Mozambique's economy is expected to grow 7 percent this year - one of the fastest in Africa - and investors such as Brazil's Vale, London-listed Rio Tinto, Italy's Eni and U.S. oil firm Anadarko are working to develop some of the world's largest untapped coal and gas reserves.
Renamo raids in April and June in central Mozambique had already caused alarm. They killed at least 11 soldiers and police and six civilians and forced a temporary suspension of coal exports sent by rail to the coast.
But President Armando Guebuza's government has sent troop reinforcements to Sofala to contain Dhlakama and his core of armed veterans - believed to number no more than a few hundred.
"Renamo does not have the fighting capacity to stage large direct attacks on government ... forces," IHS Global Insight political analyst Robert Besseling said.
There was a risk Renamo could cause some disruption with hit and run attacks against rail lines carrying coal exports to the coast and on road traffic in the central area.
But Hanlon did not see a major military threat. "Renamo is not recruiting young fighters. So far as we can tell, it's the old guerrillas," he said.
Brazilian company Vale, which transports coal on the Sena line to Beira port in central Mozambique, said its operations were continuing normally despite the recent fighting.
"We're following events closely," Vale's Project Director for Africa, Asia and Australia, Ricardo Saad, told Reuters.
Hanlon said he did not see major investors panicking over the recent events. "It's still less violent in Mozambique than it is in South Africa," he said.
Renamo's current tactics could even provide a political opportunity for a smaller opposition party, the MDM, which was formed by Renamo dissidents and holds the mayorships of the ports of Beira - Mozambique's second city - and Quelimane.
With eight parliament seats, MDM plans to contest the November elections and could pick up more municipalities from Frelimo and Renamo, Hanlon said.
Maputo street vendor Luisa Salomao, 45, said she was praying there would be no return to conflict. "I can't believe the parties could even think of plunging our country back into war".
(Additional reporting by Vuyani Ndaba in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Andrew Heavens)