By Pascal Fletcher
GORONGOSA, Mozambique (Reuters) - Mozambicans voted on Wednesday in local elections, haunted by nagging fears of conflict as the ruling Frelimo party confronts an emerging political rival and an old civil war guerrilla chief who has taken his fight back to the bush.
In Gorongosa, a village in central Mozambique, voters lined up at two schools, some clearly nervous after opposition Renamo guerrillas in the surrounding hills left pamphlets threatening to disrupt the polls.
"I'm voting but I'm scared because people are talking of war," said Sonia, a civil servant who, like many, declined to give her full name. With soldiers and police standing guard, voters turned out early in separate lines of men and women, many of the latter carrying infants strapped to their backs.
Renamo, Mozambique's largest opposition party, is boycotting the elections as its leader Afonso Dhlakama, Frelimo's foe in a 1975-1992 war, hides deep in the Gorongosa forests that once served as his guerrilla base.
Since April, Mozambique's image as a stable and fast-growing African success story blessed with big coal and natural gas reserves has been blotted by shootings and ambushes in the centre and north carried out by Dhlakama's fighters.
Dhlakama, 60, who has lost a string of elections to Frelimo, accuses the party and President Armando Guebuza of monopolizing political and economic power. He is demanding reforms to an electoral system that he says is biased.
Challenging Frelimo in Renamo's place for control of the 53 municipalities is the emerging Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM), casting itself as an alternative to historical enemies who are trapping the country in a cycle of outdated conflict.
Hit-and-run Renamo attacks have continued right up to Wednesday's elections, with gunmen shooting at military-escorted convoys on the main EN1 north-south highway in central Sofala province, and clashing with security forces in the bush around Gorongosa.
The town, a scattering of brick and adobe buildings straddling the EN1, was calm on Wednesday, but buzzing with rumors about nearby shootings and attacks.
Residents said many fearful inhabitants had left the town in buses for cities before the vote, and the normally bustling crossroads market had fewer traders.
"We don't need war," said market trader Chame Raul. "We need water, better schools, more electric power."
Gorongosa district administrator Paulo Majakunene said Renamo fighters had pasted pamphlets around the town telling residents not to vote and warning of an attack.
"But people are here exercising their right," he said, gesturing to the patient lines of voters.
Elsewhere, national election observers reported a solid turnout in voting for mayors and councilors.
Frelimo looks set to maintain the political dominance it has enjoyed since it helped Mozambique gain independence from Portugal in 1975.
But MDM, which hopes to retain its mayorships of Beira and Quelimane and win other municipalities, wants to establish itself as a force in legislative and presidential elections next year.
The campaign for the local elections has been generally peaceful but rival supporters and riot police clashed in Beira at the weekend, injuring more than 20 people.
Guebuza, who cast his ballot in the capital Maputo, has said he will not stand again in 2014 after two terms as president, but has not designated a successor. "People are voting for prosperity and peace," he said on Wednesday.
His government faces popular criticism over cronyism and corruption, and questions from donors over how effectively state funds, swelled by tax revenue and income from coal and gas deals with foreign investors, are being used to reduce poverty.
While Renamo's low-intensity attacks remain distant from Mozambique's economic hubs of Maputo and Beira, they have affected normal life in and around Gorongosa, causing farmers to flee their plots and reducing food supplies.
The unrest has also cut the number of visitors to beaches and to game parks such as the Gorongosa National Park.
Foreign donors, which have supported the economy with billions of dollars of aid over two decades of peace, are pressing Guebuza and Renamo to sit down and talk.
"We strongly encourage bold efforts to win back the peace," U.S. Ambassador Douglas Griffiths told Reuters.
There are fears, too, that unchecked violence could hamper future development and investment by major foreign companies in coal and gas reserves described by experts as some of the largest untapped deposits in the world.
Guebuza and Dhlakama say they are ready to meet but the two sides have bickered over the venue and Renamo's demands for foreign observers.
Locals, asked where Dhlakama is, gesture to the cloud-shrouded Gorongosa mountain on the horizon. "He's out there".
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo; Editing by Kevin Liffey)