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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - At the age of 60, Mozambique's former rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama is hiding out in the bush again, not backing down in a struggle between old foes that has donors and investors fretting about stability in the budding energy producer.
A year ago, the leader of the country's biggest opposition party Renamo quit his life in the city and returned to the remote Gorongosa forest from where he once directed a 16-year civil war fought by his guerrillas which ended in 1992. Dhlakama says he does not want another war.
But as he and his followers evade Frelimo government troops who overran their base on Monday, there is a risk of more of the clashes and raids in central Sofala province that have disputed road and rail traffic this year. The fighting has rekindled memories of a brutal war in which a million people may have died.
Some critics may dismiss Dhlakama as a petulant loser, questioning his claims of unfairness in a string of elections won by Frelimo over two decades of peace. But he may still tap into broader dissatisfaction among Mozambicans at uneven sharing out of wealth from the nation's huge coal and gas discoveries.
After the army occupied Dhlakama's Sathunjira camp on Monday, forcing him deeper into the Gorongosa mountains, Renamo said it was abandoning a 1992 peace pact.
The now graying ex-rebel is trying to press President Armando Guebuza's Frelimo party, the victor in every election since 1992, to accept Renamo demands for reforms to an electoral system Dhlakama says is flawed.
Raul Domingos, a former comrade of Dhlakama who was expelled by Renamo 13 years ago but has since reconciled with the party leader, says Dhlakama's return to the bush is "like someone going on hunger strike, to call attention to something".
He said that, if cornered, Dhlakama and his core of armed guerrilla veterans - believed to number a few hundred - could fight back with hit-and-run raids in Sofala and elsewhere.
Defense Minister Filipe Nyusi said the army had "dismantled a nucleus of terrorism" in response to Renamo attacks. Renamo parliamentary spokesman Arnaldo Chalaua accused Guebuza of wanting to kill Dhlakama, calling it "presidential terrorism".
Former associates and advisers said the Renamo leader has been driven by festering anger over his four successive election defeats he blames on fraud. Nevertheless, foreign governments and observers had all broadly accepted these vote outcomes, anxious to preserve the peace in war-scarred Mozambique.
"He's frustrated. It's been a long time coming," said David Hoile, a consultant, formerly from Rhodesia, who advised Dhlakama for years and has kept in touch with him.
"It's a dangerous time, I think, for Mozambique," Hoile said, adding Dhlakama's sense of political exclusion could reflect a wider sense of dispossession among many Mozambicans who felt that they have not shared enough in the country's fast growth and multi-billion dollar resources investment boom.
"If there is that restlessness, frustration, Dhlakama is a touchstone for that," said Hoile. He saw the rebel leader's pilgrimage back to the bush as a "wake up call for the guys in Maputo", the capital some 600 km (400 miles) to the south.
The renewal of fighting in central Mozambique has triggered international alarm, with major donor the United States, former colonial power Portugal, the United Nations and African leaders all urging Renamo and Frelimo to negotiate.
Washington urged both sides to "move back from the brink".
Renamo's Chalaua said Dhlakama was "well, and in good spirits" in the bush: "He's on his home turf," he said.
Renamo was born in the 1970s as a creation of white-ruled Rhodesia's CIO intelligence service, which recruited Mozambicans opposed to the Marxist Frelimo liberation movement that took over on Mozambique's independence from Portugal in 1975.
CIO chief Ken Flowers was Renamo's "godfather" and used the trained Mozambican proxies to counter the movement into Rhodesia from Mozambique of the black nationalist guerrillas who would eventually take control of the country and rename it Zimbabwe.
When white rule there ended in 1980, Renamo was adopted by South Africa's apartheid military in a "total war" to try to push back black nationalism on borders from Angola to Mozambique.
For all its history of foreign backing, however, Renamo had built up significant domestic support by the time of the 1992 peace. Dhlakama's decision to go back to his Sofala home region, the cradle of the Renamo insurgency, suggests he believed he could still find sympathy and backing among his Ndau people.
"He was quite confident that he had massive support," said Andre Thomashausen, a former United Nations official who visited Dhlakama in August at the base in the Gorongosa forest which is now occupied by government troops. He described it as a well established camp of neat huts, with power from a generator.
Thomashausen, a law professor in South Africa, was involved in Mozambique's peace process. During the day he spent with him, he found Dhlakama "a bit despondent" that his return to the bush had not won concessions from the government.
"He is not a dragon spitting fire," said Thomashausen. "He would like to have a compromise."
When Dhlakama emerged as Renamo's leader following the death in combat of predecessor Andre Matsangaissa in 1979, some who met him viewed him initially as an unlikely guerrilla commander.
"He looked like a timid bank clerk when I first met him," said Paul Moorcraft, a journalist and security expert who travelled to Dhlakama's Gorongosa base in the mid-1980s when Renamo was laying waste to huge swathes of rural Mozambique.
Moorcraft said Dhlakama, who photographs from the time show as a pudgy, bespectacled figure in combat greens, turned out to be "not a Napoleon, but quite an effective leader".
The civil war, in which both sides were accused of atrocities against civilians, shattered infrastructure, displaced millions, and forced previously Marxist Frelimo into a peace pact that established multi-party democracy in Mozambique.
But it is the quality of that democracy which Dhlakama has been questioning for years, denouncing what he calls a Frelimo stranglehold on economic and political power under Guebuza.
Renamo has seen its share of support from the vote dwindle over more than a decade from some 48 percent to just over 16 percent. From the 112 seats that Renamo won in the first multi-party parliament in 1994, the movement's representation has now fallen to just 51 seats out of 250.
Many blame this on what they call ineffective and capricious political leadership by Dhlakama, which has led to splits and defections in his movement and the formation of a rival opposition party, the MDM, led by a prominent Renamo defector.
A Maputo-based diplomat said of Dhlakama: "My impression is not that of an engaged politician with a plan".
But ex-comrade Domingos warns against writing Dhlakama off as a spent force, saying Renamo's planned boycott of upcoming municipal elections on November 20 spells trouble for the country.
"If we make mistakes with our analysis, we'll wake up one day and find the nation at war," he said. He urged the international community to apply diplomatic pressure to push both Frelimo and Renamo to a negotiated political solution.
Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo; Editing by Alastair Macdonald