Mozambique foes talk peace into the night

ROME (Reuter) - Hopes of a quick accord to end 16 years of civil war rose yesterday after all- night talks between Mozambique's President and its rebel leader got off to a good start.

'All I can tell you for the moment is that the meeting went well,' President Joaquim Chissano said after his first meeting with Afonso Dhlakama, who has been fighting to overthrow the government since 1976.

A handshake in a five-star hotel was the first move to heal the rift, as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe brought Mr Chissano and the leader of the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) face to face for the first time. The talks broke up only after dawn, giving the two the chance for a few hours' sleep before the start of formal negotiations.

A meeting hosted by the Italian Foreign Minister, Emilio Colombo, and bringing together President Chissano, Mr Mugabe, Mr Dhlakama and Gaositwe Chiepe, the Foreign Minister of Botswana, began late because of the all-night talks.

Both Mr Chissano and Mr Dhlakama said earlier they were looking for a quick peace settlement in Rome.

Mozambique, one of the world's poorest states, is in the throes of its worst drought in decades, now devastating crops throughout Southern Africa. This has added the spectre of famine to the horrors of war.

Mr Chissano said on arrival on Tuesday that well over half the population of Mozambique needed urgent outside help. 'There are 3.1 million people who need to be rescued and 6 million more who are in the cities but who need outside help to eat. Of course, the war is making this more difficult,' he said.

'The drought is terrible and is worsening. There are huge migrations of people and some people are dying.'

One million people have died and many more have been made homeless by the war, which began a year after Mozambique had won independence from Portugal at the end of an 11-year guerrilla struggle.

Renamo and the Mozambican government have been negotiating for the past two years in Rome and have signed agreements on holding elections and the formation of political parties. But there is still a wide gap between them.

Their military leaders cannot agree on what the country's future army should be called, let alone how many men it should have or what role the intelligence services should play. But the Italian and Roman Catholic mediators who have been conducting the negotiations say the basic problem is one of overcoming years of mistrust.

Apart from the military issues, Renamo is holding out for guarantees that any accords signed in Rome will not be torn up as soon as the rebels lay down their arms.

Mr Colombo said he was certain the two sides would 'not allow themselves to miss this historic appointment with peace'.