By Manuel Mucari
MAPUTO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Mozambicans marched in the capital Maputo and two other cities on Thursday to protest against the threat of armed conflict in the country and a spate of kidnappings by criminal gangs.
Carrying signs reading "We want peace", and "Stop the kidnappings", the protesters criticised President Armando Guebuza's government for not doing enough to protect citizens as it confronts attacks by armed guerrillas of the Renamo opposition movement in the centre and north.
Besides the demonstration in downtown Maputo, protesters also marched in the port cities of Beira and Quelimane.
Renamo raids and ambushes since April have killed civilians, police and soldiers and the army is hunting fugitive Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama in what some say is an escalation of violence that could tip Mozambique back into civil war.
There are also concerns that the armed clashes - although mostly occurring far to the north of Maputo - may worry international investors who are developing big coal and offshore gas deposits in the former Portuguese colony.
"We don't want to live in this climate of fear and insecurity. We're here to say with a loud voice 'no to war', because we want peace," one of the protesters in Maputo, artist Sertorio Salde, 38, told Reuters.
ANGER OVER KIDNAPPINGS
A growing number of kidnappings for ransom which have targeted wealthy and middle-class families in the last two years have also angered Mozambicans. The protesters accused the government and police of failing to act to prevent them.
A 13-year-old kidnapped boy was found dead near Beira this week after his family contacted police to report the abduction. This caused outrage and added to widspread public suspicions that some police officers may be involved in the kidnappings.
"We've reached a state of total misgovernance. The government is adrift, it's not managing to resolve the immediate problems which the country is facing," said Marilia Tembe, another participant in the Maputo demonstration.
The protests, where marchers also criticised corrupt police and civil servants, were organised by civil society groups and religious organisations.
Guebuza's Frelimo party has ruled Mozambique since independence from Portugal in 1975. The former Marxist liberation movement fought a war against Renamo rebels which ended through a 1992 peace pact that introduced multi-party democracy.
Frelimo has won every election since 1992, but faces accusations from Renamo and other opponents that a small ruling elite is monopolising political and economic power.
Despite rapid economic growth in recent years, more than half of the population still live in poverty and many Mozambicans feel they are not seeing the benefits of a growing investment boom focusing on some of the world's largest untapped coal and offsnore gas deposits.
Adding its voice to international alarm over the situation in Mozambique, the United States on Thursday condemned "reprehensible attacks" on civilians there and expressed concern about escalating violence between the army and Renamo.