Out of Angola: Beware the black pouch pistol-packer

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The Independent Online
LUANDA - The steamy nights of Luanda demand a cold drink, perferably at one of the city's chic outdoor disco bars whose opulence and repertoire of thumping dance tracks make it easy to forget, even for just a moment, that this is the national capital of a country wracked by perhaps the worst war in the world.

Just over a year ago at this time, nightspots such as the Bar Aberto (Open Bar), Espaco 93 (Space 93) and the aptly named Pandemonium were scenes of celebrations of Angola's climate of new-found peace and the first democratic elections in this part of Africa since the Portuguese colonialists arrived 500 years ago. There was a delightful mix of young Angolans, white Angolan-born Portuguese who had returned from Lisbon with money to burn, and a wide assortment of international aid workers and UN military and political officials who were there to help to usher in the fledgling democracy.

One year on, the young upper-class Angolans, many of them children of the wealthy officials in the formerly Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), are still around, but most of the white Portuguese have gone back to Lisbon, their flirtation with the new peaceful Angola simply a bad dream. The number of UN workers, especially the troops and officers, has been drastically reduced, too. In their place has arrived a new breed of international soldier, the gun for hire.

The bulging black waist pouches are a giveaway. If you plan to get into an argument with someone at a bar in Luanda these days, it is wise to check first to see if the person is sporting one of the pouches, the kind bikers and joggers wear. If he is, chances are that inside is a 9mm pistol. Tempers are quick, especially when the word 'mercenary' comes up in conversation.

These men, generally the size of rugby players who have watched more matches drinking beer than they have played, are almost invariably English- speaking and carry passports from their adopted home, South Africa, a country for which they fought. Their origins are kept secret but several have admitted to knowing people who operated with the defunct '32 Battalion', a mixed unit of Angolans and foreign mercenaries which for years fought on the side of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) against President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' government in the name of resisting Communism.

Today ideology has been replaced, as security and selling expertise in weaponry have become a very profitable business. There are several security companies operating in Angola, including the largely British Defence Systems Ltd, which recruits former Ghurkas and carries out a wide range of tasks, from training soldiers in Mozambique to protecting banks in London. In Luanda, its men help to guard the British Embassy.

Another company, far more shady, is run by a former Israeli coronel, has been linked to a former Angolan interior minister and recruits heavily in South Africa. Accusations that the Dos Santos government was hiring mercenaries to fight against Unita have been strenuously denied by the spokesman for the armed forces, Brigadier Jose Manuel Jota.

Foreign security advisers were certainly hired to protect the country's oil installations, however. Phillip Smith, a British resident of South Africa, was killed earlier this year when Unita captured the north-west oil producing town of Soyo. When Mr Smith's name was mentioned recently at the Bar Aberto, two beefy security types, one an Australian and the other with a British accent, threatened violence if there was any more talk about 'our mate'. The South African interests section in Luanda is attempting to retrieve Mr Smith's body.

The point of departure of many of the new security men in Angola is Lanseria airport just outside Pretoria. Their passage is arranged by a Swiss- based company which owns an Antonov, built by the former Soviet Union. A South African firm called Executive Outcomes does the recruiting. Its boss, Eben Barlow, told the Star, a South African daily newspaper, last month that his company had been helping in 'restructuring and re-training' the Angolan army since August. He was responding to a decision by the South African Defence Force temporarily to ground the plane, which was carrying 18 former SADF soldiers to Luanda.

The sight of ex-South African soldiers defending their former enemies in the Angolan government leads to surreal scenes. When a television journalist asked a South African who admitted to being a former member of the 32 Battalion to drop off his film in Johannesburg, the man said he would do so on one condition: that it contained nothing that would make the MPLA government look bad.