Urgent talks seek to avert war in Angola

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EMERGENCY meetings of Angolan military officers and foreign diplomats are under way to try to stop the opposition leader Jonas Savimbi pushing the country towards renewal of the 16-year civil war because of a stinging defeat by his former Marxist foes in the country's first general elections.

The marathon negotiations yesterday were sparked by Mr Savimbi's decision on Monday night to withdraw his former guerrilla force from the week-old Armed Forces of Angola (FAA), the planned 50,000-strong army which includes both government troops and fighters of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita).

The Unita pull-out heightened an already tense situation after Mr Savimbi threatened on Saturday to resume the armed struggle because of what he alleged was intimidation and vote-rigging in the 29-30 September legislative and presidential elections.

Electoral officials yesterday delayed announcing the election result, apparently bowing to pressure from Unita. The National Electoral Council said it was suspending the count to allow for a double check of the vote. Most international observers have described the elections as free of intimidation, but reserve final judgement until the release of the official results.

With 95 per cent of the votes counted, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is leading Mr Savimbi by a 50.8 to 39 margin. Mr dos Santos will need at least 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off election. Unita has done even worse in voting for the 223-seat legislature, losing to the formerly Soviet- and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) by 55 to 33 per cent.

Mr Savimbi's explosive reaction to the results shocked Western diplomats and prompted the United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, to call on Unita twice in the past two days to show restraint. In a statement after the Unita pull-out from the FAA, he said Mr Savimbi's action violated the May 1991 peace agreement, brokered by the US, Portugal and the Soviet Union, which brought in a ceasefire and an election plan sponsored by the United Nations. 'This is an unfortunate step which is not in accord with the spirit or letter of the Angola peace accords,' he said.

Criticism from the US, which, with South Africa, was Unita's main support during the war, stung Unita officials. Its chief representative to the Joint Peace Commission, Elias Salupeto Pena, said: 'Mr Cohen is not an Angolan.' Unita wants the government review or annul the election, stop the publishing of results, and admit that police had intimidated voters.

The Joint Peace Commission, which groups military commanders from the government and Unita, as well as UN officials and foreign diplomats, yesterday discuss Unita's claims and its decision to withdraw from the new army. 'Some harsh words were exchanged between Unita and the government,' said one participant. 'But, without painting a rosy picture, there is still room for manoeuvre.'

In the run-up to the elections, Mr Savimbi said he believed only fraud could deprive him of a landslide victory against the MPLA. 'If Unita does not win the elections, it has to be rigged,' he said in an interview on 20 September. 'If they are rigged, I don't think we will accept them.'

If war returns to Angola, Mr Savimbi's army appears to be in a strong position. Unlike Mr dos Santos's former army, which has been wracked by mutinies of soldiers seeking to be demobilised, Mr Savimbi's military forces remain highly disciplined and will follow their leader's commands. The 16-month ceasefire has allowed them to establish positions in cities throughout the country for the first time.