Beira (Mozambique) (AFP) - Mozambique's president said the country's fragile peace process must not collapse after veteran rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama, who had opened talks with the government, died unexpectedly aged 65.
President Filipe Nyusi hailed Dhlakama as "a citizen who always worked for Mozambique" and said he was distraught at the news of his death.
"I hope that we as Mozambicans can continue to do everything so things do not go down," Nyusi said in a telephone call to state television TVM late on Thursday evening.
"He did everything so that there would be peace. The last time he spoke to me, he said he was not going to miss out anything in peace negotiations."
Sources in Dhlakama's opposition Renamo party said he died on Thursday after a heart attack, while local media said he suffered severe diabetes.
For 39 years, Dhlakama led Renamo, the rebel group which fought a 16-year civil war against the ruling Frelimo party until 1992 and then emerged as an opposition party that still retained its armed fighters.
He had been in hiding for much of time since 2013 in the remote Gorongosa mountains after sporadic conflict again erupted in the country.
But Dhlakama had recently held meetings with Nyusi and he was seen as playing a key role in advancing the country's nascent peace process.
- Surprise truce -
Dhlakama's death "increases the difficulty of turning the current ceasefire with the government into a lasting political settlement," said Ed Hobey-Hamsher of the Maplecroft Risk consultancy, adding that Renamo now faced a leadership vacuum.
Analysts said Dhlakama would be remembered for challenging the abuses of the ruling Frelimo party, but also for allowing his own forces to commit serious human rights violations with impunity.
In December 2016, he announced a surprise truce with the government in the major first step towards a formal peace deal.
Nyusi and Dhlakama last met in February in Gorongosa to discuss disarmament and reintegration, and they appeared to have agreed on constitutional reforms that would decentralise power.
The reforms, currently under debate in parliament, would allow voters to directly elect provincial governors, who at present are appointed by the president.
But Renamo's demands for better integration of its supporters into the police and military remained a sticking point in discussions.
"The person to succeed him has to come from the armed wing of Renamo," said supporter Delphina Joaquim, 29, in the rebel stronghold of Beira city.
"The strength and stability that Dhlakama had -- we want someone like him. We will continue working with the mission he left us."
Dhlakama repeatedly stood as an unsuccessful presidential candidate in elections, despite alleging electoral fraud.
Mozambique will hold elections in October 2019, with observers saying Renamo had recently increased its public support.
Frelimo has ruled the country since independence from Portugal in 1975.
- Restive legacy -
Nyusi reportedly sent a helicopter to the Gorongosa mountains to fly Dhlakama abroad for emergency medical treatment.
"The weight for me is worse than for everyone," Nyusi said. "I tried to transfer him but I could not because he was in a place where I could not help."
"We have lost our father, our teacher, the person who is the light of the majority of Mozambicans," Renamo secretary-general Manuel Bissopo told TVM.
Local media said Dhlakama's body arrived early on Friday in Beira, though no funeral details have yet been announced.
Between 2013 and 2016, Renamo -- which also holds seats in parliament -- attacked government and civilian vehicles, while soldiers were accused of ruthlessly targeting suspected rebels.
The United States issued a statement expressing condolences and calling for all sides to work towards a peace deal after Dhlakama's death.