'Nobody from Renamo is going to the polls tomorrow,' said Rahil Khan, spokesman for the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo). 'But we are not saying we are going to war.'
Mr Khan said Renamo and several other opposition parties had decided to pull out of the elections because of alleged poor organisation of the polls by the National Electoral Commission (CNE). In such conditions, free and fair elections were impossible. He described the technical problems as part of a plot to keep President Joaquim Chissano's ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in power.
Mr Dhlakama, who was in the central port city of Beira last night, had approved of the boycott, Mr Khan said. 'It is very probable that Mr Dhlakama will not come to Maputo', where he was planning to vote, Mr Khan said.
The UN's special representative, Aldo Ajello, was holding urgent meetings early this morning with several Western ambassadors at the residence of the British ambassador, Richard Edis.
The elections were to be the climax of a two-year peace process that brought an end to one of Africa's worst civil wars, in which up to one million people were killed and several million others were driven from their homes.
The enthusiasm of the last campaign rally in Beira this week confirmed that Renamo, long condemned as one of the world's most barbaric guerrilla armies, enjoyed widespread popular support in central Mozambique.
But analysts believe Mr Dhlakama's chances of victory against Mr Chissano's Frelimo, which has ruled the one of the world's poorest country since independence from Portugal in 1975, were slim. But there were signs that hardline elements in Frelimo were panicking as the elections drew near. An editorial in the pro-Frelimo Noticias newspaper on Tuesday said there was 'a big international conspiracy' headed by the United Nations to aid the Dhlakama campaign.
The rally in Beira capped a dramatic transformation of Mr Dhlakama from rebel leader to presidential candidate. Three years ago, Mr Dhlakama, 41, son of a former chief, was leading a South African-backed guerrilla army in an insurgency that killed 1 million people.
Renamo's origins date to the early 1970s, when the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation decided to set up a low-level guerrilla army in Mozambique to thwart the Zimbabwean nationalist fighters. They were advancing inside Rhodesia as Frelimo pushed back the Portuguese colonial army.
Frelimo's domination by leaders from the Shangaan people of southern Mozambique sparked resentment in the centre and north of the country. Its decision under President Samora Machel to embark on a revolutionary socialist programme of forcing people into villages, re-education camps, and banishment of traditional chiefs, boosted Renamo's recruitment.
After Rhodesia became an independent Zimbabwe in 1980, South Africa took over sponsorship of Renamo in retaliation for Frelimo's support for the African National Congress's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. Finance, training and heavy-arms shipments helped the rebels to expand their war to the entire country, destroying the gains Frelimo had made in improving local education and health facilities. The Frelimo army was riddled with corruption and low morale, forcing the government in Maputo to request the intervention of troops from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi.
In October 1986, Machel was killed in an air crash over South Africa. Mr Chissano took office and accelerated Western-backed economic reforms. In 1989, supported by the country's religious leaders, he offered to negotiate peace with Renamo. Three years later, Frelimo and Renamo signed a peace deal in Rome and asked the UN to oversee a complex process of disarmament, demobilisation, and the creation of a new unified army.
Two years on, the transition has been completed partially. But dangers remain. The new unified army is still, in the words of Mr Ajello, 'a skeleton'.
Military analysts estimate that the country is awash with up to 700,000 AK-47 assault rifles. Incidents of armed banditry have occured almost every day.
Mr Dhlakama had threatened to reject the election results if he detected fraud. But he has repeatedly vowed not to return to war. Western diplomats in vain have urged Mr Chissano, the expected winner, to form a government of national unity on the model of South Africa in an effort to avert more strife.
Political stability would be crucial if Mozambique were to attract the foreign investment needed to exploit its rich farmland, vast deposits of coal, natural gas, extensive fishing resources and to help its 15 million people. They are rated as the poorest in the world, with an annual per capita income of about dollars 80 ( pounds 49).
The UN hoped Mozambique would provide its first triumph in conflict resolution in Africa since Namibia's independence. 'If we have a success here, this is a kind of a gold mine,' Mr Ajello said yesterday. 'This is the real capital this country has to offer the international community.'
Leading article, page 19