Maputo (AFP) - Mozambique's president and Renamo are determined to avoid a return to war, a negotiator said Tuesday, after the former rebels declared a 1992 peace deal over.
Two days of tit-for-tat violence have raised fears the country could plunge back civil war, two decades after the end of one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts in which around a million people were killed.
Members of Renamo, now an opposition party, attacked a police station on Tuesday, hours after the group declared a government raid on its base had broken the peace deal that ended 16 years of fighting.
But in talks with independent negotiator Lourenco do Rosario, Renamo said it "reaffirms that it does not want to return to war," the envoy said.
Instead Renamo demanded government forces pull back from the base they seized on Monday, in the central Gorongosa mountains, and pledged in exchange not to restart hostilities, Do Rosario said.
President Armando Guebuza also renewed his commitment that "dialogue is the best way forward despite the skirmishes," according to Do Rosario.
Police fled their post in the central town of Maringue when Renamo fighters opened fire early Tuesday in an escalation of hostilities between the ex-rebels and the ruling party Frelimo.
"Gunmen attacked the police station but fortunately there were no casualties because the policemen fled the post," Maringue's administrator Antonio Absalao told AFP by phone.
Local teacher Romao Martins said "the situation is horrible here. Early this morning, armed men supposed to be Renamo attacked, and it was a mess."
"For one hour shooting could be heard from all directions and people fled from their homes," he said.
Schools have been shut in the region around Renamo's military base, in the mountains of central Mozambique.
The town is located about 35 kilometres (20 miles) from the base, seized in an operation the ex-rebels said was aimed at killing their leader, Afonso Dhlakama.
But President Guebuza said the soldiers had acted in self-defence after Renamo militants fired at them, state news agency AIM reported.
Dhlakama had fled ahead of the attack on the base, according to negotiator Do Rosario, who said both sides acknowledged there had been no casualties.
"He is available to return to the negotiating table already this week," added Do Rosario.
Return to war 'unlikely'
The United States said in a statement it "profoundly deplores" the resumption of violence, urging both parties to take "decisive steps to calm tensions".
Renamo -- the Mozambique National Resistance, which became a political party after the civil war -- has not claimed Tuesday's attack.
But spokesman Fernando Mazanga told AFP Renamo fighters may have been behind it.
"The president of Renamo has lost control of the situation and you cannot blame... (him) for what happens from here on," Fernando Mazanga told AFP.
"The guerrillas are scattered and will attack without taking any orders," he said.
Renamo took up arms against the then-communist government of Frelimo -- the Mozambique Liberation Front -- after independence from Portugal in 1975.
Heading into local government polls next month and a national vote in 2014, Mozambique has a history of election-related violence.
But South African Institute of International Affairs researcher Aditi Lalbahadur said it was "very unlikely that you are going to see a return to war."
Lalbahadur said that Renamo lacked the capacity to engage in a full-scale conflict and that war was not in the interests of the government though it had more powerful armed forces.
"Mozambique is trying very much to attract foreign investment into the country so any type of political instability works to their disadvantage," she said.
Renamo, which has faced dwindling political support, is demanding more representation on election bodies and in the armed forces.
The government has said it is open to electoral reforms, but accuses Renamo of refusing to budge in negotiations. Over 20 rounds of peace talks have failed.
Tensions began escalating last year after Dhlakama began retraining former guerrilla fighters in the Gorongosa mountains.
The assault on Renamo's base came after the ex-rebels attacked a government military unit on Thursday, a defence ministry spokesman said.
Renamo accepted a peace deal after losing its backers Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa at the end of the Cold War.