Angola offensive threatens Unita city stronghold: Army 'killed 2,000 rebels last week'

THE ANGOLAN government's latest offensive against Unita rebels is threatening their occupation of the highlands city of Huambo, and prospects for peace talks remain gloomy until the offensive succeeds or is stopped. In the meantime, thousands of Angolans are dying in the fighting or in the famine that follows it.

On Friday, three Angolan employees of the World Food Programme (WFP) were killed when their trucks were attacked by an armed gang outside Catengue, 295 miles south of the capital, Luanda. A fourth relief worker was seriously wounded. It is likely that the attackers were members of Unita, which has condemned the United Nations for co-operating with the government in Angola. Unita radio said: 'By supplying only one side in the conflict, the relief agencies have entered the sphere of warfare.'

The UN condemned the attack but said it would continue to distribute food to more than 2 million Angolans facing starvation since the government and Unita went back to war in October. Unita has shot at two WFP planes in the last five months, forcing one to crash-land in a mine field where two relief workers were killed.

According to the government newspaper, Jornal de Angola, more than 2,000 Unita fighters have died in the past week as the government forces advance up two roads from the Atlantic coast into Unita territory in the highlands. This figure has not been independently verified but there is no doubt that the scale of the fighting is as heavy as it was during the 1980s. Although overshadowed by media coverage of Bosnia and Somalia, Angola is the world's biggest war.

Jornal de Angola quoted its source as saying the forces advancing from the coast had been fighting for several days in Cuma, 60 miles west of Huambo, which fell to Unita in March. The newspaper quoted a military source as saying the casualties were inflicted on three fronts in battles for the towns of Tchidjenje, Monte Belo, Balombo and Quilengues. Government troops are now within 50 miles of Huambo, a fiercely defended Unita stronghold.

No one knows for sure how many people have died from direct or indirect effects of the war. But many diplomats and aid workers believe at least 50,000 have perished since the war resumed 11 months ago.

For the first time since war broke out again after Unita rejected election results last year, the government forces appear to be dominant and able to take Unita-held towns in the south. This would reduce Unita to a guerrilla movement again and diminish its political strength at the negotating table - when or if negotiations restart.

The government's success is due to a number of factors. At the weekend, it was reported that the United States, a former ally of Unita, was giving the government satellite information about Unita troop movements. The Angolan government has also been buying weapons to restock its arsenal.

But Unita sources say that the government forces, having advanced easily from the coast, are now running into heavier opposition and described the suggestion that Huambo might be taken as 'alarmist'.

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