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Africa File: Jonas Savimbi finds that diamond fields are not for ever

DIAMONDS, it seems, are not for ever. Just ask Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) rebel movement. His treasury, swelled by an estimated dollars 200m (pounds 130m) annually by diamond revenues, took a beating last weekend when government troops, aided by up to 100 foreign mercenaries and Russian-built jets and helicopters, captured the rich diamond-producing areas of Cafunfo and Catoca.

This victory could be the most significant development in the Angolan civil war, in which hundreds of thousands have been killed and maimed since Mr Savimbi rejected the results of the September 1992 elections and again took up arms against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' government.

The capture of Cafunfo and Catoca should be a boon to the eight-month-old peace talks under way in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Despite optimistic predictions by the UN Special Representative to Angola, Alioune Blondin Beye, that peace was just around the corner, the Angolan armed forces chief of staff, General Joao de Matos, has made it clear that until his army recaptured the Unita diamond mines, as well as the north-western oil-producing town of Soyo, there would be no peace accord. Last weekend's victory leaves Soyo, and the Angolan army is closing in on that.

While the Unita rebels are by no means about to collapse, - savings from the diamond trade will last for quite some time - the medium-term military outlook appears bleak. Earlier this month, government forces pushed Unita out of the besieged central highlands city of Cuito. Particularly irked by the loss of Cafunfo and Catoca will be Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko. In return for a cut of the Unita diamond trade, President Mobutu has allowed Unita to use his airports to fly food, fuel and arms into Angola, making a mockery of the UN Security Council's mild sanctions package against Unita. All this at a time when South Africa's President Nelson Mandela has stepped into the diplomatic fray with a clear remit to convince Mr dos Santos that the hardliners in his ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola should cede the governorship of Huambo to Unita and convince Mr Savimbi to agree to return to Luanda, the capital, and take up a constructive role.

A long shot, perhaps, but glimmers of hope are all that are left for Angola.

THE rise of Mr Mandela to the South African presidency has provoked surprising reactions in those neighbouring countries once known as front-line states. During a recent visit to Zimbabwe, a woman at the Ministry of Information dealing with my journalist accreditation posed a curious first question: 'Should we be fearing South Africa now?' I said I had thought that fear of South Africa was a thing of the past, given the various bombings and assassinations Pretoria's white minority government had carried out in Zimbabwe and other southern African states through the years. Yet her question reflected a fear voiced by many Zimbabweans from black government officials to white commercial farmers. Foreign investment will clearly be more interested in South Africa than Zimbabwe, small manufacturing plants in Zimbabwe cannot compete and various non-governmental organisations are transferring their regional headquarters to South Africa. Even President Robert Mugabe, once the region's spokesman, is having to defer to Mr Mandela and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) no longer has the luxury of explaining its own problems away by pointing to the big bad apartheid regime.

NEWSFLASH: Monday marks the first anniversary of the signing of the Liberian peace accord in which the civil-war factions promised to begin laying down their weapons and form a transitional government within 30 days. A year on, disarmament has not begun seriously, new armed factions representing the Krahn people have surfaced, and UN officials fear the spiral of violence could turn Liberia into another Somalia or worse.