Progress but no deal on peace in Angola: Rebel demands are holding up talks, writes Karl Maier in Johannesburg

A PEACE settlement in the Angolan civil war remains a distant prospect, despite significant progress made in UN- mediated negotiations between President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' government and Jonas Savimbi's Unita rebels.

Big advances have been made during a month of negotiations in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, on the mechanics of an eventual ceasefire and demobilisation of the two warring armies, sources say. But sticky political issues, such as the rebels' demands for senior cabinet posts in a national unity government and for autonomy for the central highlands region where Unita enjoys wide popular support, could block a final accord. Agreement reached on demobilisation did not include the government's controversial paramilitary force, known as the ninjas, which are to be discussed separately.

'Even after an agreement is reached, it is going to be very easy to derail the process,' said one source. Angola, gripped by civil war since independence from Portugal in 1975, enjoyed an 18-month ceasefire and its first general elections in September 1992 under a peace accord brokered by Portugal, Russia and the United States. The country returned to war, described by the United Nations as the world's most destructive conflict, after Mr Savimbi rejected his electoral defeat. Up to 100,000 are estimated to have been killed in the past year through fighting and famine.

As the talks broke up last week for Christmas, the UN special representative, Alioune Blondin Beye, was optimistic that a peace deal was within reach. 'We are not far from concluding the Lusaka protocols because all the difficult questions are behind us and we have already created conditions for resolving the remaining ones,' he said.

'A truce has not been signed, but both sides have freely made commitments to that effect in Lusaka and they should respect this by making sure that the action on the ground corresponds to this commitment.'

Mr Beye insisted, however, that he would not authorise a ceasefire before all disputes had been settled. His position has angered Unita, which has been pushing for a ceasefire and the deployment of UN peace-keepers as soon as possible. Western diplomats believe Unita wants the quick arrival of a UN force to shield it from the government army so that it can maintain control of the 60 per cent of Angolan territory it now controls.

Unita officials have warned, however, that they might not return to the negotiations. 'By waiting for the full package we will lose everything that we have achieved so far. You have to learn to win by steps because if there is a military crisis within the next few days all will be lost,' said a Unita spokesman, Jorge Valentim.

The talks nearly collapsed after government planes bombed Unita positions near Cuito on 11 December. Unita claimed it was an attempt to assassinate Mr Savimbi, but UN investigators disproved this.

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