Gathered on wooden benches under the shade of a mango tree on Saturday, scores of loyal supporters of Mozambique's rebel opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama could barely believe he has died.

Dhlakama led Renamo for nearly 40 years, through a bloody civil war and into an era where the party has lawmakers sitting in parliament while also retaining armed fighters.

Dhlakama died unexpectedly on Thursday aged 65, leaving his party reeling from shock and struggling to contemplate a future without their talismanic leader.

Outside the party's local headquarters in the small town of Dondo, Renamo supporters and former militants mourned their loss and recalled fighting alongside him.

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"We have come together to sing, to pray and to wait for the instructions of the party about the burial arrangements," Bernardo Joao, a Renamo activist told AFP, his voice full of emotion.

"We believe that Dhlakama came to liberate the people who lived in slavery".

Some of the party faithful cried quietly and held their heads in their hands as they grieved in the choking dust next to the main road from Beira city to Zimbabwe.

Dhlakama was a central figure in Mozambique's history since independence from Portugal in 1975.