Renewed civil war dashes Angolan hopes for talks

WHEN the Angolan government ended its 14-year, Marxist- inspired nationalisation of the Our Lady of Conception seminary last year, Catholic nuns opened a primary school in the first step towards a new beginning. That hope was short-lived, however, like Angola's experiment with multi-party democracy, which has collapsed into renewed civil war.

The seminary got off relatively lightly from the fierce fighting earlier this month that killed an estimated 1,000 Angolans in Benguela. Pock-marks and holes in the walls were the only signs of the battles between President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's government forces and troops loyal to Jonas Savimbi's Unita.

Few other buildings in central Benguela escaped the battles. Unita soldiers dynamited the central market, and government supporters did the same to Unita's provincial headquarters. Bulldozers were used to scoop up the hundreds of corpses that littered the city's wide avenues.

With the fighting in Benguela and the neighbouring city of Lobito now over, the government has been dispatching soldiers, helicopters and MiG-23 fighter jets from the nearby Catumbela airbase to the central highlands town of Huambo, Mr Savimbi's political stronghold. There, government forces have been engaged in fierce street battles and artillery duels with Unita troops since 9 January. Both sides have claimed victory, though the continued fighting suggests the claims are false. Unlike the routs suffered in Benguela, Lobito and other major cities, Mr Savimbi's forces have put up stiff resistance. Reports suggested that he has thrown the bulk of his forces into the battle.

Should the United Nations Verification Mission (Unavem) decide to take up Mr Savimbi's call for massive intervention to stem the crisis in the country, Unita would need Huambo as a provisional base. If Huambo falls to the government, Unita soldiers can expect another long spell in the vast Angolan bush where they fought for 16 years.

Either way, hopes for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, sparked by Mr Savimbi's rejection of his loss in Angola's first general elections last September, have faded. The Angolan Council of Ministers has put off a decision on declaring a state of emergency, but diplomatic sources said the move was likely as was the banning of Unita.

Margaret Anstee, the special UN envoy, was scheduled to present a report to the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, by the end of the month (when the current UN mandate runs out) recommending whether the Security Council should increase the UN presence in Angola, including the dispatch of a peace-keeping force, or pull out altogether.

On 14 January she suggested she was leaning towards recommending withdrawal. 'If hostilities don't cease, there is no sense in the United Nations staying here,' Ms Anstee told reporters as plans for a meeting between government and Unita military represenatives in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, collapsed.

Mr dos Santos' government, which has scored significant victories over Unita in the past two weeks, shows no signs of easing its current offensive. Mr Savimbi, on the other hand, has lost credibility in the eyes of international negotiators because of his violation of previous ceasefires.