Silent killers stalk their prey in Angola's long night: Thousands have died in fighting after rebels reneged on a deal, writes Karl Maier in Lobito

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The Independent Online
WHEN darkness falls over the dusty shantytowns above the central Angolan port city of Lobito, residents lock themselves in their homes for fear of falling victims to the 'silent bullets'.

Just 10 days ago, the lower-class suburbs, known as Bella Vista, became a killing ground as government troops and supporters faced off against soldiers loyal to Jonas Savimbi's Unita movement in the worst street battles seen in Lobito since Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

The violence began in the neighbouring city of Benguela on 5 January, causing millions of pounds' worth of damage in the city centre, and then moved to Lobito, where one of Africa's best deep-water ports is situated. Thousands of people were killed in the fighting, which has since spread to north-west and east Angola.

Today during daylight hours the area is largely peaceful, but local residents said that at night, gunmen using silencers stalk their prey. Supporters of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) hunt down militants of Mr Savimbi's Unita.

Angola's latest spiral of armed violence dates to the decision by Mr Savimbi to reject as fraudulent the results of presidential and parliamentary elections last September, which gave victory to Mr dos Santos and the MPLA. The polls, judged by the United Nations as free and fair, were the climax to a peace process begun in May 1991 that was supposed to bring to an end the 16-year civil war. It has not.

Beginning in November, Unita troops scored repeated gains against government forces, occupying at least 70 per cent of the country and violating several different ceasefires brokered by the special UN envoy, Margaret Anstee of Britain. Mr dos Santos's government, which initially met the Unita ceasefire violations with diplomatic complaints, threatened retaliation. When it finally came, Unita was devastated.

Unita forces, which used the 18- month ceasefire period, following the peace agreement that led to elections, to infiltrate Angola's big cities, have been expelled back to the vast Angolan bush, no match for the government's MiG-23 fighter jets, helicopter gunships, anti-riot police and armed civilians.

Unita offices in Lobito and Benguela are largely piles of rubble. Witnesses said both sides carried out summary executions.

Fighting was continuing this week in the central highlands town of Huambo, site of Mr Savimbi's political headquarters. Nationwide, the number of Unita casualties has been devastating.

The battle lines have been drawn, and few residents of Lobito believe a lasting peace is possible. MPLA supporters are particularly embittered at what they see as Mr Savimbi's two-track policy of talking peace while prosecuting the war.

'Savimbi only tries to gain time,' said Geronimo Alberto Mateus, 30, who was demobilised from Angola's feared Ministry of Security in 1990 after the ceasefire. 'While they were saying they were ready to meet in Addis Ababa for peace talks, Unita was mobilising its troops for war.'