War to escalate during run-up to Angola talks: Deaths have reached 100,000 since Unita rebels took up arms again in October

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The Independent Online
WAR is likely to continue and intensify in Angola in coming weeks as both sides in the conflict appear to be seeking military advantage before they return to the negotiating table.

Unita, the rebel movement which returned to war after it lost last year's election, is laying seige to Cuito, the central highlands town, and is said to be preparing to attack the port of Benguela, while the government is reported to be mounting an offensive to retake Huambo, the provincial capital of the highlands. Huambo fell to the rebels in March after a bitter two-month siege.

Meanwhile, emergency food aid flights by the World Food Programme remain suspended after one of its aircraft was hit by ground fire from a Unita-held area a week ago in northern Angola. The WFP said yesterday that it was seeking a new agreement with both sides that would allow it to have ground staff permanently in areas to which it was flying food. United Nations officials estimate that 100,000 people have been killed in fighting since October and two million more are in danger of starvation.

A reporter from Angolan national radio in Cuito said this week that food was scarce in the town. He said that Unita was shelling it continuously and Unita troops had gained control of the main hospital, located close to the city's administrative buildings. The reporter said that civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and the city's streets were strewn with hundreds of corpses. People in Menongue, also under siege, have been ordered to stop work and join civil defence forces to fight Unita.

Control of Cuito and Menongue would ensure that the whole of the centre of the country was in Unita hands, while the capture of a port would enable the movement to bring in arms and fuel for its fighters.

But this may be unnecessary for a while as arms dealers have privately scorned the UN Security Council threat to impose an arms embargo on Unita if it does not restart negotiations by 15 September. One arms dealer experienced in Angola said he estimated that Unita had enough weapons stockpiled in underground bunkers to last the movement two or three years, and that the movement still had enough friends in South Africa and Portugal to keep it supplied by air.

The government Foreign Minister, Venancio de Moura, has recently visited Washington, which has recently recognised the Luanda government, to beg for military assistance. But sources in Washington said that trade with Luanda would be restricted to non-lethal military equipment.

A UN arms embargo against Unita would represent a complete change of sides by Washington, which used to support Unita with money and weapons.

New international initiatives to bring the two sides together are not looking hopeful. Efforts by the Vatican and the governments of Ivory Coast and Morocco, as well as Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader in South Africa, have not yet produced an agreement to talk. 'I think everyone agrees that peace in Angola in the short-term is unlikely,' one diplomat said.

(Photograph omitted)

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