Melissa F. Wells, U.S. ambassador to Mozambique, was quoted Sunday as saying that, if there is proof that South Africa backs anticommunist guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Mozambican government, "We haven't seen any of it." Wells said later that she understood the interviewer's question to be whether there was proof of direct South African involvement in massacres of civilians or airdrops of weapons used in such massacres, which Mozambique has blamed on guerrillas. She noted that she and other U.S. officials have consistently referred to a "pattern of communications support" for the rebels that appears to point toward South Africa. (Published 1/30/88)

MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE -- The inability of Mozambique's 30,000 deployable Army troops to deal with the threat of guerrilla attacks on farms and emergency food convoys is leading western aid donors to consider supplying the Marxist government with military equipment and training as well as humanitarian food supplies.

Western diplomats and relief workers acknowledged that formidable obstacles to such military aid would have to be overcome. But they said that a number of Mozambique's foreign benefactors now realize that in a country where the most pressing problem beside hunger is the inability of farmers to protect their crops, the line between providing humanitarian aid and security assistance is becoming less distinct.

The concept is certain to run into stiff opposition in the United States, because the right-wing guerrilla group battling Marxist rule here, the Mozambique National Resistance, is supported by the conservative caucus in Congress.

Supplying arms and military training to the leftist government would likely be considered akin to backing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua instead of the anticommunist contra rebels.

The Army's effectiveness in dealing with ambushes has been hampered by the elusiveness of the Renamo guerrillas, whose numbers are variously estimated to be between 5,000 and 20,000.

The rebels do not conform to the classic guerrilla warfare tactics of controlling defined areas and creating alternative government structures in an effort to win the support of the local population. Instead, government officials and western diplomats say, they are constantly on the move, looting and destroying villages and transport in hopes of bringing Mozambique to economic paralysis.War on the Economy

"It's difficult to understand why they destroy so thoroughly," said U.S. Ambassador Melissa F. Wells in an interview here. "They say themselves that they don't want to hold a town because they would be vulnerable to air attack. They want to bring the country down by destroying it economically."

Complicating the situation is the fact that what is loosely called Renamo is not a homogeneous group and that some attacks ascribed to Renamo actually are carried out by roving bands of outlaws.

Michael Ranneberger, deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Maputo, estimated that 30 to 35 percent of the attacks on civilians are carried out by free-lance bandits, many of whom obtained their weapons in 1983 when the government launched a rural self-defense program and handed out guns to militias.

Also, Wells said, while Renamo is highly structured, with a 16-man executive committee and a mobile military headquarters, many local commanders who call themselves Renamo leaders have evolved into free-lancing warlords under little or no organizational control.

"In an environment where there are too many guns and abject poverty, there is bound to be a spin-off of people living by the gun," Wells said.

Still, she added, "there is an organized system of armed groups whose main objective is to attack civilians."

Renamo was created by Rhodesia's security forces as a counterintelligence unit across its border in Mozambique, and was adopted by South Africa when Rhodesia's white minority government was ousted and the country became Zimbabwe in 1980.

Mozambique's trade minister, Manuel Jorge Aranda da Silva, reiterated the government's long-standing position that Renamo could not survive without military supplies from South Africa, which, he said, is still committed to a "systematic program of destabilization."

South Africa maintains that it stopped supporting Renamo in 1984. Wells said that if there is proof that Pretoria is backing Renamo, "we haven't seen any of it."

While Britain is training a small number of Mozambican soldiers and other Western European countries, including France, are considering similar assistance, no western nation has supplied Mozambique with weapons to defend its rural areas and its emergency relief convoys.

Most of Mozambique's weapons are supplied by the Soviet Union, which maintains a sizable presence through military advisers and intelligence specialists.

Nonetheless, the Army is critically short of basic military hardware, particularly trucks, helicopters, armored vehicles and radios. Its troops are also woefully undertrained and lacking in motivation, according to western diplomats and military analysts.

Conscription is erratic, and some military commanders are said to visit local movie theaters periodically and round up young men for on-the-spot induction into the Army.

The result of the equipment shortfalls is that even when the Army receives a timely warning of a guerrilla strike through its primitive communications network, it cannot move soldiers to the scene of the attack in time to engage the enemy.

Some relief has been provided by neighboring Zimbabwe, which has about 12,000 troops deployed along the strategic corridor leading to Beira, Mozambique's second-largest Indian Ocean port, and by Tanzania, which has about 2,000 soldiers in the central Zambezia Province.

But the government still has been unable to halt attacks on farms that have prevented an estimated 2 million peasants from producing food, or ambushes of relief truck convoys that have cut off emergency supplies to more than a million subsistence farmers.

"We come from a country where people understand what an army is supposed to do," said Wells. "You have just the bare rudiments of that here, if at all."

Wells, who assumed her post last year after a long, bitter confirmation battle with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other supporters of Renamo, added, "We need to continue emergency {food} aid despite the attacks on the convoys. But do we want to fund massive airlifts? We've got to do something to help protect these people."

Wells would not say whether she has recommended a U.S. military support program to Washington, but said, "They are aware of it." Donor nations, she added, also are becoming increasingly aware of the need.

David Neff, director of CARE International in Mozambique, which together with the Mozambican government manages the biggest emergency food transportation system here, also cited "military failure in the defense of the convoys" as one of the country's major problems. Security 'Nightmare'

Neff said it is a "nightmare" for CARE drivers who travel more than 30 miles outside Maputo. Since 1984, he said, 25 trucks have been destroyed, 15 drivers and assistant drivers killed and at least 450 tons of food and relief supplies looted or destroyed by Renamo guerrillas.

He said that the convoys could be successfully defended if they were accompanied by armored vehicles with adequate radio communications. If a convoy were attacked, he said, the soldiers could call for standby helicopter gunships to repel the attack in time.

As it is now, relief workers said, convoys are almost invariably abandoned by their drivers and military escorts with the first shots from a guerrilla ambush, leaving the cargo and civilian passengers to the mercy of the attackers.

Vincente Jao Mendez, 48, recalled that last Nov. 17 he was driving a seven-ton truck loaded with 160 sacks of corn 30 miles out of Magude, north of Maputo, when one of the three trucks in the convoy hit a land mine.

The truck in front managed to accelerate and escape, but a soldier in Mendez's truck was shot, and Mendez fled, running eight miles to a village. He said all five surviving Army guards also fled.

Ernesto Mambuzon, 29, said he was driving in a convoy of 80 trucks 48 miles north of Maputo last Oct. 16 when rebels began firing from both sides of the road.

Mambuzon said he tried to pull around the lead vehicles, but that in the confusion the road was blocked. He said soldiers tried to set up defensive positions, but that deadly cross fire forced them to retreat into the bush.

Trade Minister da Silva predicted that 1988 "will be a very difficult year," adding, "We are going to have a food crisis in this country in the next months that we have not had in six years. Our stocks are zero, and this is a bad year for the weather.

"In Mozambique, we don't like to ask for food. We are ashamed of it. But the situation is desperate. The world community must continue to support us."