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Civilians bear brunt of Angola's ferocious war: At least 100,000 have died since Unita took up arms in October after losing elections

THE ANGOLAN government and Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels continued to announce tallies of the civilians killed in recent weeks as the world's worst war, with at least 100,000 deaths in 10 months, took an even more ferocious turn, writes Karl Maier.

The government has intensfied its counter-offensive by dropping 500lb bombs on the central highlands city of Huambo, stronghold of Mr Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita). Among the casualties have been scores of civilians and the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The rebels have tightened their stranglehold on Cuito, 60 miles east, shelling the city of 250,000 people and leaving hundreds of corpses to rot in the streets.

Unita yesterday said the bombing raids on Huambo killed 200 civilians in the past week, while Angolan state radio announced an equal casualty toll in Cuito in recent days. Since the siege began, 14,000 people have died in Cuito, the government said. The lack of medicines, clean water, and electricity in both cities has ensured that the number of dead will rise even if the fighting stops. Fierce clashes were also reported in the province of Kwanza Sul, near the Atlantic coast.

Government forces appeared to show determination against the rebels, with military spokesmen claiming a turnaround in the army's fortunes. Other observers said the improving government posture reflected weakness in the Unita forces, which, with control of 75 per cent of the country, are badly overstretched.

The international community, which had hoped to hold up Angola as a model transformation from civil war to democracy, has gradually weighed in with support for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government, led by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Mr Savimbi restarted the war in October after charging that the UN-supervised elections, which Unita lost to the MPLA, were rigged.

Britain on Monday announced a lifting of the arms embargo against Angola, and the United States has expressed willingness to provide non-lethal aid to the army. Washington, once a major backer of Unita along with South Africa, reversed its hostility to the former Marxist authorities when President Bill Clinton recognised the MPLA government in May.

The government has bought arms from several European countries, including Spain and Portugal, and, reports say, Israel. Russian technicians have restored old weaponry. Unita is believed to be supported by Zaire and private sources in South Africa.

A threat by the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo against Unita on 15 September unless it honoured the May 1991 peace accords is a hollow one, according to most military analysts. Some said Unita's arms stockpile could last two years.

Some observers believe the increased fighting could reflect a desire on both sides to gain maximum battlefield advantage before the deadline, when Unita might agree to new peace talks to stave off further isolation.

UN relief agencies and the International Red Cross vainly have sought permission to airlift food aid and medicines to both sides. The UN special envoy, Alioune Blondi Beye, has met Mr Savimbi and President dos Santos and the three countries that sponsored the original peace accords, Russia, Portugal and the US. But he has found the diplomatic solution as elusive now as it was under his predecessor, Margaret Anstee, whose tenure oversaw the collapse of the peace process and descent into full-scale war.