Violence hits run-up to Angolan poll

THE campaign for the first elections in Angola, to be held on 29-30 September, is a lesson in surrealism, as well as being, at times, a very hazardous affair. Perhaps that is not surprising after a 16-year civil war which pitted foreign troops and arms from such powerful enemies as South Africa and the United States and Cuba and the former Soviet Union in Africa's biggest proxy war.

Yet so polarised are the two main contestants - the ruling MPLA Party of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Jonas Savimbi's Unita Movement - that violence can boil to the surface at any time, as it did on Monday when Unita soldiers occupied the airport of the central highlands town of Kuito and refused to allow planes to leave or arrive, according to the Angolan news agency, Angop.

Three weeks ago soldiers of the two armies engaged in a four-hour firefight in the town after some MPLA militants killed a chicken in public. The Unita Party symbol is a rooster.

The two sides cannot agree on anything, even on the town's name. The MPLA calls it Kuito, the name the government gave it after independence from Portugal in 1975, while Unita insists on Bie, the name from colonial times.

The chants and slogans were almost identical as the candidats addressed the crowds at the weekend. But for all the similarities, the differences are also clear.

The MPLA supporters were largely from the town itself, with decent shoes and trousers, and Mr dos Santos addressed his rally in Portuguese. His speech centred on 'the secure future' that is the cornerstone of his campaign and, after repeated calls from the crowd, he promised to send more of the newly created anti-riot police - commonly known as the 'ninjas' - to maintain the peace.

In contrast, the Unita supporters were mainly from the surrounding rural areas, where ovimbundu, not Portuguese, is the common language. They were mostly barefoot. Mr Savimbi spoke, in ovimbundu, of change, and railed against a threat allegedly posed by the 'ninja'.

Shortly after the rally, Mr Savimbi set the tone for the forthcoming elections in a short interview. 'If Unita does not win the elections, it has to be rigged,' he said. 'If they are rigged, I don't think we will accept them.'

By then feelings in the streets were running high. Over at the offices of the United Nations military force (Unaven), which is monitoring the 16-month-old ceasefire, MPLA and Unita supporters were battling over the fate of three Range Rovers flown in that day by the government.

But it was Unita's day, and Kuito was Bie as Unita militants burned the vehicles. 'It's like this all the time,' said one Unavem officer standing by helplessly. 'At the least sign of trouble, both sides are itching to pick up the guns and start it all again.'