28 March 2001

ANGOLA: UNITA fails to counter army gains

UNITA rebels loyal to Jonas Savimbi have continued to carry out sporadic attacks on civilian targets. UNITA has portrayed these attacks as the fruits of the reorganisation of their forces since they were forced out of their strongholds in 2000. However, it is significant that despite the murder of hundreds of people over the last year, there have been no major sustained advances on the battlefield for UNITA.

Whilst some of these attacks tie down the Angolan army, FAA, to protecting civilian areas, the majority of attacks are hungry rebels looting food. The continued mine-laying by UNITA is still a matter of serious concern as it makes the roads dangerous to use, limiting the freedom of movement of the local population.

UNITA has so far been unable to hold any of the positions it has taken from FAA. At the end of February FAA retook Quibaxe, Bengo province, from UNITA, who had held the town from 17 to 23 February. According to the Portuguese Lusa news agency, UNITA killed a number of civilians during the occupation, and around 8,000 of the population are missing (presumed either to be hiding in the countryside or under UNITA control).

UNITA has managed to carry out some high profile attacks, hitting strategic targets before withdrawing. Seven people were killed and six wounded when UNITA attacked the edges of Benguela City on 12 March, during which houses were looted. UNITA also claims to have attacked the major airforce base at Catumbela on the same day.

Landmines continue to pose a threat to traffic. They are particularly difficult to control as they are easily transportable and only take a matter of minutes to plant. Radio Ecclesia reported that twenty people died and 27 were wounded on 28 February when a truck hit an anti-tank mine between Mungo and Huambo. One person was killed and two injured on 13 March when their vehicle hit a mine on the road from Alto Hama to Bailundo.

According to Captain Bemba Kaliato who surrendered to the Angolan authorities in Benguela City recently, UNITA troops are suffering from a lack of food and medicines, and he predicts that many more will soon surrender.

UNITA's leader, Jonas Savimbi, on 22 March contacted Voice of America by satellite telephone for a twenty-minute interview, launching speculation about where he was, and what he wanted. This is the first interview that Savimbi has carried out in 18 months. During the interview, Savimbi accepted that UNITA has suffered military defeats, but warned that the rebels were reorganising and making a comeback.

The rebel leader stated that UNITA was ready for dialogue stating that "we would like to come to a national reconciliation phase, in peace, with calm, with a disposition to accept the errors pointed out to us". However, he warned that "it is not possible to speak about disarmament when there is a mandate for my capture".

Savimbi may have been aiming to play to the gallery in Washington, where he may still hold hopes of regaining ground since George W Bush became US President, claiming that "the Clinton administration accepted war as the way to end the war. Now the Bush administration is saying that dialogue is the best way to achieve peace. I think that is a monumental difference".

His hopes may have risen with the appointment of Walter Kansteiner as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, where he has taken on the job previously carried out by Susan Rice. Kansteiner had previously been sympathetic to Jonas Savimbi. However, there is no evidence that there has been any shift in policy at the White House. An Angolan diplomatic source indicated that the government remains confident that relations with the United States will continue to improve.

he speaker of Angola's parliament, Roberto de Almeida, on 25 March publicly replied to Savimbi's call for dialogue, stating that "if the Lusaka Protocol is still valid as he [Savimbi] says, he should first complete the clauses relating to the demilitarisation of his party - there should be no militarised party. This is the first step". The speaker continued that "We know that Savimbi only gets interested in dialogue and negotiations when he is weak" (Angola, Peace Monitor, London).

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