Maputo — The Mozambican defence ministry and armed forces (FADM) have categorically denied that there is any forced recruitment of young men into the army under way on the streets of the central city of Beira.
Reports of such illicit recruitment had been circulating for three days, and on Wednesday, crowds of angry youth, believing that they were about to be pressganged into the army, set up barricades of garbage containers and burning tyres in the main Beira thoroughfares.
The city was gripped by panic, and clouds of black smoke poured into the skies. Shops and markets closed, and the minibuses that provide much of Beira's passenger transport stayed off the streets.
Journalists tried to find out if there really was any forced recruitment happening. The independent television station STV interviewed several youths, all of whom believed the story but were unable to present any evidence. They had just heard that many other young people were being forcibly dragged into the army.
No doubt the panic was fed by memories in the older generation of the 1980s when there really was forced recruitment, when pressgangs did snatch young people from public places, in what became known as “tira camisa” (“take off your shirt”) operations.
Police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the crowds and clear the barricades. In the chaos, one child was killed and here are reports of two other deaths.
But Fernando Conforme, the head of the army's Provincial Recruitment and Mobilisation Centre (CPRM), told AIM he knew nothing about any plan to pressgang Beira youths. Instead, what was happening was the normal and orderly incorporation into the army of people recruited through the usual, legal methods.
These methods involve the registration of all young Mozambicans for military service in January and February of the year of their 18th birthday. The army then notifies those it wishes to recruit, and they are submitted to medical tests. They are normally taken to military training centres in the year of their 19th birthday.
Conforme said that the third group of recruits from Beira and the rest of Sofala province, have concluded their medical inspection. There are 223 of them and they are being sent to training centrs in Manhica, in Maputo province, and Montepuez, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.
There was no question of forced recruitment - indeed, in addition to the annual intake of conscripts, the army could not cope with the number of young people volunteering for military service. “There are lots of young people who are volunteering to join the army”, said Conforme, “but they can't all be recruited”.
This year, the first group of recruits from Sofala numbered 144, and the second 136. Conforme admitted there are difficulties with the third group, but not in Beira. Because of the current instability in areas such as Maringue and Muxungue, affected by the clashes between gunmen of the former rebel movement Renamo and the defence and security forces, the call-up notices may not have reached recruits in these areas.
In Maputo, the director of human resources in the Defence Ministry, Edgar Cossa, said that the story of forced recruitment was a rumour spread maliciously in order to cause dsturbances.
“We don't know who's been recruited, where or how, In particular, we don't know what barracks these supposed recruits are in”, said Cossa at a Wednesday press conference. “These are questions that have no answer. So we're sure it's a rumour”.
He urged all Mozambicans, but particularly the residents of Beira, to keep calm, be vigilant and denounce those who are spreading the rumour.
On Thursday, in the Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, one Renamo deputy claimed that a cousin of his had been pressganged the previous day, thrown into a military truck and taken to a barracks in Dondo, 30 milometres from Beira.
But Prime Minister Alberto Vaquina insisted that the story was nothing but a rumour and declared “those who spread the rumours are responsible for the deaths”.