UN quenches the Cuito inferno

INTERNATIONAL food aid reached the besieged Angolan city of Cuito for the first time yesterday as the United Nations scrambled to bring relief to thousands of people living in what one official described as a 'Dante's inferno'.

The UN said between 15,000 and 35,000 people had died in the city in the past nine months and hundreds more had suffered gunshot, shrapnel and landmine wounds. A spokesperson for the World Food Programme in Harare, Zimbabwe said up to 40 people a day were dying from starvation.

'Every empty space around buildings and people's homes is filled with tombs,' Manuel Aranda da Silva, the head of the UN Emergency Co-ordination unit in Luanda, said in a telephone interview. 'There are hundreds of malnourished children, sometimes 200 of living in a small shelter.' He estimated that 100,000 people in both government and rebel held areas needed immediate aid. The Angolan government has put the figure at 300,000.

Every building in the city has suffered severe damage from the eight-month siege by Jonas Savimbi's Unita forces against troops loyal to President Jose Eduardo dos Santos's government. The city remains divided along the main city road, and the UN mission on Friday had to cross the battle lines twice on the journey from the airport to the centre of town. Mr da Silva, a former minister in Mozambique, which like Angola was wracked by civil war since independence from Portugal in 1975, said he had never seen devastation on such a scale.

The UN is planning to follow up yesterday's airlift of food and medicine with three further flights. Mr da Silva said the UN also hoped tobegin similar airlifts today to the Unita-controlled town of Huambo in the central highlands. The opening of Cuito to flights represents a big victory for the international aid effort in Angola. Since Unita halted its shelling of Cuito on 21 September, the UN has lobbiedthe rebels and the government for permission to fly relief to the city, but to no avail until Friday's airlift.

Since Mr Savimbi resumed Angola's 18-year civil war following his defeat in the country's first general elections in September last year, an estimated 65,000 people have died as a result of the conflict.