UN despairs of Angola's see-saw war

MARGARET ANSTEE, the British UN special envoy to Angola, spends a lot of time waiting for telephone calls that she hopes will help stop the civil war.

The voice she wants to hear is that of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), whose refusal to accept defeat in the country's first elections in September brought a poorly funded, UN-backed ceasefire and democracy plan crashing down into a renewal of the 16-year conflict.

Truces have been ignored and attempts to set up new negotiations rebuffed. The UN Angola Verification Mission (Unavem), which Ms Anstee heads, has closed 41 of its 67 monitoring stations throughout the country and more evacuations of military observers continued yesterday. 'You might be on a tragic see-saw,' Ms Anstee said in an interview. 'When one side is up they don't want to talk and when the other is up, they don't want to talk.' Last week the government had the initiative, but in recent days the see- saw has tilted in Unita's favour.

It has recovered from routs in several big towns last month to fight to a standstill government forces in the central highlands city of Huambo. On Tuesday, Unita captured the oil-producing city of Soyo. Oil accounts for 90 per cent of the income of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government.

Mr Savimbi had promised to strike at the government's main foreign-exchange earnings, oil and diamonds, and at Luanda. In the Soyo attacks, which destroyed several oil tanks, Unita captured 17 expatriate workers and another seven were reported missing. Three Britons were among them.

At least 10,000 people have been killed since polls closed on 30 September. In slums around many cities, vigilantes have pursued Unita militants in a campaign sometimes known as 'caca homen' (manhunt).

In 10 days the UN mandate, which Ms Anstee described as 'increasingly irrelevant', runs out. There are three options for the UN: a pull-out; the dispatch of thousands of UN troops with a role changed from observers to directly supervising the demobilisation of tens of thousands of soldiers; or a smaller mandate, what Ms Anstee called 'a holding pattern'.

What she does not want to happen is 'staggering on with declining influence and an irrelevant mandate'. A pull-out would be 'totally irresponsible and wrong', while the introduction of a large UN force would be impossible, given the present scale of fighting. Thus the most likely decision would be to reduce Unavem to a skeleton operation, mainly in the capital, and wait for the two sides to call with ceasefire proposals.

Many ordinary Angolans, who mistakenly believed that Unavem's role included powers to intervene, blame the UN for the crisis. Many diplomats blame both the Angolans and the weak UN mandate drawn up in accords brokered by Portugal, the US and the former Soviet Union.

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