Unita loses cities as war spreads

LUANDA - Angolan government forces have overwhelmed Unita rebels in at least three cities after a week-long offensive in which more than 1,000 people died, diplomats said yesterday.

They said Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) had been overcome in its stronghold of Lobito and the coastal cities of Namibe and Benguela. Unita had apparently also withdrawn from Caxito, 40 miles north-east of the capital, Luanda, which it had occupied since November. The government was appeared to be on the verge of retaking another provincial capital, Ndalatando.

'The government has been fairly successful in rooting out Unita,' said one Western diplomat. But he said Unita might be regrouping for a future attack. The sources said at least 1,000 people had been killed in Benguela and hundreds elsewhere since the MPLA government launched an urban offensive against Unita last week. The rebels occupied some 70 per cent of national territory after losing a UN-supervised election in September.

Unita's leader, Jonas Savimbi, apparently eager to stop the assault, told a US State Department official on Wednesday night that he wanted a meeting between one of his generals and the government's armed forces commander. A senior government general, Higino Carneiro, said on state radio on Wednesday night that he had been in contact with Unita on reopening a dialogue to defuse the crisis.

However, the Angolan Prime Minister, Marcolin Moco, yesterday rejected a ceasefire call by Mr Savimbi. 'Unita has this mania for proposing talks every time they lose territory. We are sick of this attitude. Unita has to learn that neither side benefits from war,' Mr Moco said.

Each side blames the other for the recent violence, but the government insists that it wants to salvage its 1991 peace agreement with Unita. The pact ended 16 years of civil war. The peace accord broke down after Unita rejected its defeat by the ruling MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in the September vote.

A Unita spokesman quoted on state radio described the fighting in central Angola on Wednesday as 'catastrophic' but the situation appeared to have calmed down considerably by yesterday.

The radio accused Unita of killing unarmed people in Benguela. 'There are many dead on the streets. Unita is murdering people, particularly unarmed youths, whenever it is forced to withdraw,' it said. One Western source said government troops appeared to be carrying out their offensive 'in ruthless fashion'.

The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres told Portugal's TSF radio yesterday that a hospital was hit when shelling erupted around Cuito, capital of Bie province in the central highlands. There were no reports of casualties.

Government forces were said to have either killed or captured a number of Unita political officers and their supporters in the southern coastal city of Namibe, where Unita had a very small presence.

Unita denied reports from the state-run news agency, Angop, that government forces had recaptured the two north-western provincial capitals of Caxito and Ndalatando, seized by Unita in November.

A delegation from the Zimbabwe and Cape Verde governments is expected to fly to Huambo today to discuss and prepare for a meeting between Mr Savimbi and the ad hoc peace committee of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), AFP reports. An OAU mission visited Angola last month but did not meet Mr Savimbi because he refused to come to Luanda for security reasons.

(Map omitted)

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