BOBOLE, Mozambique (Reuters) - At Bobole, a bustling refreshment stop on Mozambique's north-south highway, brightly-painted kiosks lined with bottles offer drinks to thirsty travelers while hawkers sell bananas, paw-paws and carrots in a typical African roadside scene.
But memories remain fresh off when Bobole lay in the "death corridor" of a civil war that cost nearly one million Mozambicans their lives until it ended two decades ago.
This year, a series of hit-and-run raids by opposition Renamo gunmen about 600 km (375 miles) further north has rekindled fears of a return to all-out conflict in what has become one of Africa's economic growth stars, where international investors are developing multi-billion-dollar coal and gas discoveries.
"What we saw here, we don't want our children to see," said Rogeria Mabjaia, who owns a kiosk in Bobole, an hour's drive north of the capital Maputo. She remembers hiding in the bush from the "bandidos", the name Mozambique's Frelimo government gave the Renamo guerrillas during the war of 1975-1992.
Back then, motorists and residents at Bobole faced ambushes day and night by armed raiders who stole livestock and food, burned homes and vehicles, and killed without mercy.
By comparison, the raids this April and June in central Sofala province look minor, although at least 11 soldiers and police and six civilians were killed.
Nevertheless they caught the Frelimo party government and its international backers by surprise, forcing a temporary suspension of some coal exports to the coast by rail, reducing north-south road traffic and causing tourist cancellations.
Unrest before local elections in November and a presidential vote next year could dislodge the former Portuguese colony from its pedestal as a "donors' darling", showered with foreign aid. It could also derail the expected resources investment bonanza in a country that remains desperately poor.
Renamo was formed as an anti-communist rebel group in the 1970s by the secret service of neighboring Rhodesia, in retaliation for Mozambique sheltering guerrillas fighting the white-minority government of what is now Zimbabwe.
It was later adopted by the apartheid-era South African military but abandoned the war in a 1992 peace pact to become Mozambique's leading opposition party.
Renamo has lost every election to Frelimo since then, but accuses President Armando Guebuza and his ruling party of hogging political and economic power through a one-sided electoral system and by harassing its opponents.
Mozambique needs some kind of accommodation, said Leopoldo Amaral, human rights program manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) in Johannesburg, a pro-democracy network founded by financier George Soros.
"They are at a crossroads. If they don't reach a deal, things are likely to degenerate," he said. "You don't want a militarized country that will scare businessmen, investors."
Brazil's Vale, London-listed Rio Tinto, Italy's Eni and U.S. oil firm Anadarko are among the major investors in Mozambique looking to develop some of the world's largest untapped reserves of coal and gas.
"A SCENARIO OF WAR"?
After first ignoring Renamo's demands for a more balanced electoral body and integration of its fighters into the army and police, the Frelimo government opened talks after the attacks.
"For Frelimo, a military solution is not desirable," party spokesman Damiao Jose told Reuters. Nevertheless, the army destroyed a Renamo bush camp in Sofala province on July 6.
Longtime Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, now 60, returned in October with a band of guerrilla veterans to his civil war base in the forested Gorongosa region of central Mozambique.
This seemed a largely symbolic gesture. Few diplomats and analysts believe Dhlakama, whose militia is thought to number at least several hundred, has the capacity, support, or even the will, to resume all-out war.
But in a country where infrastructure is poor, a few insurgents can disrupt road and rail corridors through the thick bush of Sofala province that link the central and northern interior with the coast and the south.
If this chokehold is tightened, it could effectively cut Mozambique in half in terms of land transport.
Around Bobole, where abandoned shells of homes remain in the bush as a reminder of the war, there is heartfelt opposition to any slide back to conflict.
"Both sides should talk, they should be thinking about us," Mabjaia said at her kiosk. "Mozambique just wants peace".
Renamo accuses Guebuza's government of "designing a scenario of war" by sending troops to Gorongosa to surround the area where Dhlakama is camped.
Renamo spokesman Fernando Mazanga said Dhlakama's return to his Sathunjira base on October 17 last year followed threats and harassment by Frelimo security forces and militants.
He cited the storming by police in March last year of Renamo's headquarters in the northern city of Nampula where 300 armed supporters were based, according to police. At that time, Dhlakama was also living in Nampula.
"Renamo has been patient for 20 years," Mazanga said.
Frelimo, the former liberation movement which has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975, jettisoned Marxism-Leninism in 1990 to embrace multi-party politics. It crushed Renamo in the last 2009 election by winning more than a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Dhlakama, who has challenged all his election losses, rejected the 2009 result as fraudulent but his party held on to 51 seats in parliament.
Frelimo accuses Renamo of resorting to violence to make up for its political weakness. "Renamo must change its attitude and conform to the rules of play of democracy," spokesman Jose said.
Authorities arrested Renamo's information chief Jeronimo Malagueta last month after he said the group would target "logistics". He faces charges of inciting violence.
Guebuza and Frelimo are expected to try to pacify Dhlakama and his Renamo partisans with a settlement that includes more state jobs and patronage, but the two sides are still bickering over where their leaders should meet.
While Dhlakama is widely viewed as a spent force, other opposition politicians share his complaints that Guebuza and Frelimo are imposing a virtual one-party rule under a mantle of democracy.
"The regime is being very arrogant ... There is political exclusion," said Lutero Simango, a leader of the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM), which holds 8 seats in parliament compared with Renamo's 51 and Frelimo's 191.
MDM, which was formed by Renamo dissidents and holds the mayorships of the port cities of Beira and Quelimane, has also long denounced harassment and arrests of its members by Frelimo.
U.S. diplomatic cables from Maputo, revealed by WikiLeaks, have long expressed concerns about Guebuza's leadership style and Frelimo's domination of all branches of government through its centralized party structure.
"A tough, heavy-handed man who likes to have his way," was how one 2005 U.S. Embassy report described Guebuza, a former hardline interior minister for Frelimo who is now aged 70.
A 2010 cable said he had an "authoritarian streak" and was "centralizing power", a view still expressed in private by some diplomats from the G-19 group of Mozambique's principal donors.
Frelimo's Jose rejected all these allegations as untrue.
Popular resentment is also growing about inequalities in Mozambique, where more than half the population still lives below the poverty line, and over perceived rampant corruption in the government and Frelimo.
"People are openly speaking against Guebuza," a donor country diplomat told Reuters, asking not to be named.
In Maputo, gleaming new office blocks, hotels and shopping malls have sprouted among faded colonial era buildings along the Indian Ocean, contrasting with poor neighborhoods of tin-roofed homes mushrooming up in the dusty suburbs.
The president, an independence veteran turned businessman who was re-elected to a second five-year term in 2009, is one of Mozambique's richest men. The constitution bars him from a third term but Frelimo has not designated a likely successor.
Guebuza is criticized by opponents for using his position to expand his family's business empire, which ranges from ports and logistics to construction, tourism and publishing. One popular nickname for him is "Guebusiness".
A 2009 U.S. embassy cable quoted former foreign minister Leonardo Simao as saying Guebuza "runs the party like the mafia".
The Guebuza family's commercial clout stretches to the president's youngest daughter Valentina, a civil engineer in her early 30s. She was elected to Frelimo's Central Committee last year and featured in a 2012 Forbes Africa magazine article as Mozambique's "Millionaire Princess".
Some compare this with another former Portuguese colony in Africa, oil producer Angola, where long-serving President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and his family are also accused by rights groups of running a monopolistic system that controls the national wealth. "We are going towards the Angolan model: one party, one person, one family," said OSISA's Amaral.
Social tensions caused by rising living costs and economic injustice have already led to protests. These have ranged from local people in the coal producing Tete province complaining about conditions of resettlement to make way for mining facilities, to urban riots in 2008 and 2010 over rising food prices and other living costs.
Mozambique's resources potential has created expectations among the population of 23 million that their lives will soon change for the better. But these may not be quickly met, even though four of the world's five largest oil and gas discoveries last year were made off the Mozambique coast.
"There is a gap between expectations and cash flows ... From coal, the cash flow is minimal at the moment and there is a bottleneck with the logistics," the donor nation diplomat said. "There are big expectations and the oligarchy is not yet ready to manage it."
This gap is even greater for the expected bonanza from development of liquefied national gas (LNG), forecast by experts to be a "revenue game-changer" for Mozambique, which languishes near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index.
UNICEF's Senior Social Policy Specialist in Maputo, Lisa Kurbiel, said this should be a "transformational opportunity" to tackle badly lagging education and health indicators - about 44 percent of Mozambique's children suffer from stunted growth, one of the highest rates in the world.
But a survey of Mozambique's Rovuma Basin gas prospects prepared for the U.N. children's agency cautions that the high investment levels and long time needed for LNG development mean "it is nearly impossible for gas exports to begin before 2019".
Unfulfilled expectations, coupled with the spreading malaise of corruption and a flawed electoral democracy, could pose more of a short-term threat to Mozambique's peace than the actions of a former rebels with reduced political support.
Bobole resident Salvador Zandamela, 75, who lost two sons aged 12 and 15 in the civil war, said he still had nightmares about marauding gunmen "hunting people like animals".
"So when I hear that things could be starting again, I'm afraid," he told Reuters, carrying a hoe for tilling his fields.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo; Editing by David Stamp)