Angolan talks collapse as Unita rebels stay away

SENIOR officials from the Angolan government, the United Nations, Portugal, Russia, and the United States began leaving Addis Ababa yesterday after waiting in vain for four days for a delegation of Jonas Savimbi's Unita to arrive for peace talks.

The meeting in the Ethiopian capital, planned as a second round of the talks started in January to end Angola's widening civil war, had been set up by the UN Special Envoy to Angola, Margaret Anstee.

The Unita delegation from Angola did not show up, despite agreeing to do so. It was left to two Unita representatives from New York and London to explain that the two-month-old battle for the central highlands city of Huambo made it impossible for the negotiators to travel.

Ms Anstee, seeing 18 months of a UN-supervised peace process on the brink of final collapse, offered to send planes and helicopters

to fetch the Unita officials from Huambo. Unita, however, rejected the offer.

Some military analysts believe that Unita is unwilling to negotiate seriously until its forces have won the battle for Huambo. The nation's second city is the political capital of the central highlands, home of the Ovimbundu people who form the bulk of Mr Savimbi's popular support. Government soldiers and anti-riot police have held out longer than many analysts believed possible, and the progress of a relief column from the coastal town of Benguela means an outright Unita victory is far from certain.

Ms Anstee had set up the Addis Ababa negotiations in the hope of reaching agreement on a ceasefire in the latest round of fighting, which has claimed around 15,000 lives and left central Huambo in ruins.

Relief workers evacuated from the town in January spoke of widespread destruction with no hospital facilities, no doctors, no water, no electricity and no food supplies. World Food Programme officials in Luanda have warned that up to 3 million people nationwide could soon face severe food shortages.

The violence resumed in October following Mr Savimbi's decision to reject his defeat in Angola's first-ever multi-party elections, withdraw his troops from the Unified Armed Forces, and return to the bush.

The UN and the international community - having believed Mr Savimbi's pledge to respect the results of the elections - have pleaded, negotiated and even threatened the rebel leader to no avail.

While some of the tactics of security forces and armed civilians loyal to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against Unita supporters have resulted in serious human rights abuses, most observers put the blame for restarting the war squarely on Mr Savimbi.

Unita's failure to attend the peace talks is likely to increase pressure on President Bill Clinton's administration to recognise the MPLA government and on the international community to slap sanctions on Unita, such as banning any food and medical supplies to rebel-held areas and closing down Unita offices in Europe and the US.