INCHOPE, Mozambique – In this bustling Mozambican town, soldiers search buses, military police patrol streets and civilians are jittery after a surge in attacks by rebels that echoes the civil war that ended two decades ago.
For now, though, it is just an echo. The violence that pits two old adversaries, the opposition group Renamo and the Frelimo ruling party, against each other is largely confined to Sofala, a central province where Renamo fighters hide and launch attacks. The unrest comes ahead of municipal elections on Nov. 20, and presidential and parliamentary elections in a year's time.
"Be careful of Renamo bandits," a soldier warned an Associated Press journalist entering Mozambique from Zimbabwe, to the west.
Inchope lies at the crossroads of the highway from Zimbabwe to the eastern port of Beira and the main route to the capital, Maputo, more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), to the south. Mozambique's fast-growing economy, bolstered by energy reserves and other natural resources, could suffer if political tension and sporadic violence persist in this strategic location.
Officials in Zimbabwe said their military is on high alert along the common border.
"We are not preparing to go there, and not at any time have we been instructed to go," Zimbabwe's army commander, Lt.Gen. Philip Sibanda, told a military studies lecture group this week in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.
At the height of Mozambique's civil war in the 1980s, Zimbabwe sent hundreds of troops to defend the highway, an oil pipeline and the railroad to Beira port, the country's main link to the sea that is now less strategically important as most import and export traffic goes through southern neighbor South Africa.
Four Mozambican soldiers have died and at least three civilians, including a South African tourist, were injured in a recent week of violence in Sofala. One attack targeted a convoy of civilian vehicles escorted by the Mozambique military. So far, multinational companies, many of which have offshore operations, have not been targeted.
In and near the border town of Manica, residents have appointed guards who work with the police in reporting any suspicious activities and raising the alarm if needed.
Still, apart from a large number of police and military patrols in the border area, life generally appears normal with people going about their everyday business, children playing and vendors selling market goods, crafts and artifacts.
The rebel movement Renamo, the acronym in Portuguese for the Mozambique National Resistance, fought in a civil war after independence from Portugal in 1975 and some fighters have gone to the countryside, citing injustices against its members and alleged vote-rigging in elections by President Armando Guebuza's ruling Mozambique Liberation Front party, known as Frelimo. Renamo wants more representation on the national elections panel, while the government is pushing for Renamo to disarm.
One Mozambican analyst, Paulo Wache, said Thursday that some there could be violence in some places during the municipal elections, which Renamo has threatened to boycott and disrupt. He said that dialogue between the adversaries is likely to resume after those elections, with Renamo rejecting the results but focusing its attention on general elections late next year.
Another possible but less likely outcome is more violence, a negative impact on Mozambique's economy and even a possible intervention by regional troops to help restore order, Wache said at a meeting hosted in Pretoria, South Africa by the Institute for Security Studies. Wache said a recent wave of kidnappings for ransom in Maputo and other cities could be opportunistic crimes by bandits who believe the overstretched security forces are focusing on the Renamo threat. Some police officers have been implicated in kidnapping cases.
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed from Pretoria, South Africa.