Angolans agree to talk as fighting rages

DESPITE intense fighting around the central highland town of Huambo, the two sides in the Angolan civil war are to meet for talks in Addis Ababa on Friday, according to Margaret Anstee, the United Nations Special Envoy.

Unita sources in Washington were quoted as saying that two government columns sent to relieve their colleagues besieged in Huambo by Unita rebels had been stopped. Unita's radio claimed more than 100 government troops had been killed. Yesterday, Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) claimed that 57 government vehicles carrying enough food and ammunition for 4,000 men for a month had been captured, heavy armaments had been seized and the commander of the convoy killed.

The UN hopes that the talks will lead to a ceasefire and a resumption of the electoral process. Both sides will be told that unless they stop fighting further UN support will not be forthcoming. The UN also hopes that both sides will agree to 'corridors of tranquillity' to allow food and essential medicines to reach areas cut off by war.

The government will demand a return to the peace process and acceptance of the September election. Unita will insist that the government's riot police be disbanded and its troops returned to assembly points under UN supervision. Unita will also demand the release of more than 700 of its supporters it claims have been imprisoned by the government.

Although the fighting has been countrywide, Huambo is the chief prize. Aid workers and UN officials have not been able to get near the city for more than six weeks, but the government claims that more than 10,000 have died there and 15,000 wounded. Unita says these figures are too high but admits fighting has been heavy.

Huambo was the town used by Jonas Savimbi, the Unita leader, as his headquarters during the election period and is the capital of his movement's heartland. If government forces lose the city they will lose control of the central highlands and leave Mr Savimbi in a strong bargaining position at the negotiating table.

The civil war restarted at the end of October after the elections gave victory to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The United States pushed for the elections to be held as scheduled although neither side had complied with the agreement that both should have brought their forces to UN-supervised assembly points.

Unita rejected the election results but then agreed to move to a second round in the presidential ballot. During negotiations, fighting broke out and has continued despite UN efforts to bring the two sides together. During its 16 years, the war in Angola had a history of see-sawing between talking and fighting. Both sides have acknowledged in the past that total victory is impossible and alternately fought and talked peace.

In the past few weeks Unita has made gains in the north-east, the oil-producing area on the northern coast and in the central highlands. By Friday Unita may have achieved sufficient military successes to cash them in for political gains at the conference table. In the north-east, Unita is obtaining income from illicitly mined diamonds while it has cut government income by curtailing oil production at Soyo. However, Cabinda, the enclave surrounded by Zaire that produces most of Angola's oil, is still safely in government hands, despite Unita attacks across Zairean territory.

But Unita's initial rejection of the election results and return to the battlefield have cost the movement the support of Washington, its chief backer in recent years. When Unita forces threatened Cabinda recently, Washington's chief liaison officer in Luanda said any attack on US oil installations in Cabinda would earn the strongest condemnation from the US government. The Clinton administration is likely to be more friendly to the Angolan government than its predecessors but it shows no sign of recognising it.

(Map omitted)

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