Semblance of unity for Angola's election: An agreement to merge the armed forces may not be enough to end the violence, Karl Maier writes from Huambo

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A MOB of young Angolan soldiers firing their AK-47 assault rifles into the air marched down the wide avenues of this regional capital, demanding to be demobilised from the army.

They had left an assembly point on the outskirts of Huambo on Wednesday in search of a commanding officer who could help to provide their demobilisation papers. When they could not find him, they started shooting near an academy where British, French and Portuguese military instructors were training troops for a new unified Angolan army.

The scene has been repeated almost daily in the run-up to the first general elections, being held tomorrow and on Wednesday, as large sections of the army, once considered one of Africa's premier fighting forces, have collapsed since President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Unita rebel movement, ended the 16-year civil war in May last year. Planes around the country have been besieged by soldiers seeking to escape from their assembly points. Both the army, known by its Portuguese acronym, Fapla, and the Unita force, Fala, officially ceased to exist yesterday.

The MPLA government and Unita said in a joint statement that from yesterday any troops of their two militaries would fall under the control of the new unified Angolan Armed Forces.

They said that until a new government is sworn in, the new national force will be supervised by a mixed commission overseeing a May 1991 peace accord which comprises officials of the two parties and Portuguese, US and Russian observers. 'Today September 27, 1992 the Fapla and Fala forces are formally extinct,' the statement said.

Mr Savimbi and President dos Santos met on Saturday to break the impasse and the statement said generals from both sides - the MPLA's Antonio dos Santos Franca and Unita's Arlindo Isaac Chenda Pena - would both be at the helm.

Only 8,800 soldiers will have been trained by Thursday for the new 50,000-strong unified army. Some 40,000 men of the original 150,000 combined forces have yet to be demobilised. The training programme has lagged badly, partly because of the slow arrival of ground troops from Fapla and Fala. 'Sometimes it seems that neither side was ever really serious about it,' said a Western officer involved in the programme.

The government has concentrated much of its efforts on forming a new anti-riot police force, estimated to be 20,000 strong. Mr Savimbi has in the past month begun setting up his own 'personal safety corps', according to United Nations military sources. Diplomats said the formal extinction of the enemy armies was largely symbolic but would help contribute to calm before the elections.

Logistical problems and government neglect have left soldiers of the old army in extremely poor conditions and many fear that after the elections they could be abandoned altogether.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is feeding 75,000 Fapla and Fala soldiers in assembly areas, but the food will run out this week. 'If we stop feeding these soldiers, they will be lost,' said Philippe Borel, the WFP's director of operations. 'Then they could become 'hunger guerrillas', using their guns to take what they need from nearby civilians.'

LUANDA - Four Russian crew and 11 Angolan passengers died yesterday when a UN helicopter used by observers of Angola's first free elections crashed in northern Uige province, UN officials said, Reuter reports. They said only one person aboard, an Angolan, survived the accident.

(Photograph omitted)