Lawrence Bartlett

Maputo - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II came face to face on Monday with an opposition leader once reviled as a "mass murderer" by the Mozambican government, which hosted a 10-hour royal visit to Maputo.

The queen met privately with Afonso Dhlakama, whose Renamo rebels were held responsible for a savage 16-year civil war in which children were forced to murder their parents and villagers' lips, ears and breasts were sliced off.

British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher visited refugee camps in neighbouring Malawi during the war in 1989 and described Dhlakama's Mozambique Liberation Movement (Renamo) as "such a brutal movement".

The comments from the stridently anti-Communist Thatcher came despite the fact that the government of President Joaquim Chissano, who welcomed the queen at Maputo airport on Monday, was at that time avowedly Marxist.

Thatcher's questions to a ragged throng made it clear that Renamo was not accepted as a freedom movement, reflecting a US State Department report accusing it of unleashing the worst holocaust against civilians since the Second World War.

But after a peace pact in 1992 and elections two years later, Dhlakama is leader of the opposition in Mozambique, and British officials said his meeting with the queen was symbolic of the United Kingdom's support for democracy in Africa.

She had earlier met with President Chissano, after receiving the freedom of Maputo on her first visit to the country along Southern Africa's Indian Ocean coast.

Mozambique is the newest member of the 54-nation Commonwealth, which is made up mainly of former British colonies, and the queen's visit followed the end of a trip to South Africa where she opened the organisation's summit.

She and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh were welcomed at Maputo airport by Chissano, the blare of military bands and the thud of cowhide drums, along with what amounted to a political rally.

Hundreds of people waved portraits of Chissano - who is facing an election in December - and sang songs in praise of his Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), but there were no British flags or portraits of the queen.

Unlike most countries in the Commonwealth, Mozambique has never been a British colony - it was under Portuguese rule - but it has a long and colourful history of British intrigue.

Mozambique was admitted as a member in 1995, its Portuguese past apparently forgotten in return for its suffering at the hands of two neighbouring former British colonies - apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

The former white-minority regimes in both countries backed Dhlakama's Renamo for many years during its war against the Mozambican government, before Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980 and South Africa withdrew its open military support in 1984.

At the Polana Hotel, where legend has it that spies from both Britain and Germany sipped pink gins while monitoring shipping around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope during the Second World War, the queen launched a "partnership week".

This is designed to develop commercial and cultural ties between Britain and Mozambique.

Britain is the third largest investor in Mozambique, after Portugal and South Africa, and a number of British companies will be exhibiting.

Mozambique adopted a strongly Marxist line on independence from Portugal in 1975, but abandoned it in 1989 and launched market reforms.

With a growth rate of around 10 percent, the country is being hailed as one of Africa's few economic success stories - and in view of its bloody past, it is seen as proof that no matter how low a nation sinks, it can bounce back again.

- Sapa-AFP