Leaders meet for peace in Mozambique

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ROME (Agencies) - The spectre of famine will haunt a two-day meeting that opens in Rome tomorrow between the President of Mozambique and a rebel leader who have been in conflict for 16 years.

President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Afonso Dhlakama, head of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), are to meet for the first time this week to seek a peace agreement, after talks between the two sides which have been under way for the past two years. Present at the meeting will be President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the neighbouring head of state who brought the two antagonists together.

'You will never get anyone to say so openly, but nothing as much as the drought now devastating the region is putting pressure on all sides to reach a quick settlement,' said a Western diplomat.

Mozambique has been afflicted by war since guerrillas started fighting Portuguese colonial rulers in 1964, 11 years before independence. Now it is in the throes of Southern Africa's worst drought in decades. Malnutrition is one of the major causes of death among children even in the capital Maputo, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.

The danger of mass starvation for at least 3 million people - 20 per cent of the total population - has already pushed the government and Renamo to negotiate an accord on the safe passage of humanitarian aid. But both sides remain suspicious of each other - and the agreement has yet to be put to the test by international relief agencies in Mozambique.