Worst war in the world claims 1,000 lives a day: UN is pressing Jonas Savimbi to negotiate as Angolan conflict plumbs new depths, writes Richard Dowden

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REPRESENTATIVES of the United States, Russia and Portugal were meeting in Moscow yesterday to try to end the world's worst war.

In Angola more than 1,000 people are dying every day from war and its consequent starvation, according to the United Nations. But Angola is low on the international agenda and this new phase of the war has gone largely unreported, even though more people are dying now than at any time since fighting began in the country 30 years ago.

Most of the deaths are caused by shellfire, hunger and disease in crowded towns which are under siege by the anti-government forces of Jonas Savimbi's Unita movement. Despite an agreement which has allowed the UN to fly food to all areas for the past three weeks, Unita has now stopped relief planes flying to Cuito, Malanje and Menongue.

The new United Nations special representative in Angola, Alioune Blondin Beye, a former Malian foreign minister, said this week: 'Even the most optimistic of statistics puts at 1,000 the number of people killed directly or indirectly by war in Angola every day.'

The tripartite meeting in Moscow coincides with Mr Beye's first visit to Mr Savimbi at his Huambo headquarters to try to persuade him to return to the negotiating table. At the same time in Moscow, George Moose, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, will be discussing with his Russian and Portuguese counterparts what, if any, pressure can be brought to bear on Unita.

Both sides have recently sent delegations to Europe and the US to seek support. Unita's delegation withdrew 'for consultations' after it was made clear that it would only be met by junior officials in Europe's foreign ministries. This week Albina Africano, the Angolan Oil Minister, delivered a letter for the Prime Minister to Tim Eggar, Minister of State for Energy. The letter is expected to ask Britain to help persuade Unita to resume peace talks. The meeting in Moscow brings together the three international signatories of the Bicesse Accords, signed in May 1991, which established a peace agreement in Angola. The agreement fell apart after Unita lost the elections in September last year and restarted its 16-year guerrilla war.

The accepted wisdom about the civil war in Angola, accepted by all parties, is that neither side can win. But if the war continues at this level, there will be mass starvation and Angola could become like Somalia. Several attempts at restoring the peace agreement have foundered on Unita's refusal to allow the government to take over and administer towns captured by Unita since the election took place. Unita, which lost many senior members in a shoot-out in the capital when fighting broke out in November, is insisting on guarantees of safety and a UN-supervised withdrawal from the towns it holds.

The UN military mission in Angola, Unavem II, is now down to 119 people and it is unlikely that more will be sent until there is a peace agreement. The Angolan government is ambiguous. It has offered Unita safety, but one of its ministers called for the trial of Mr Savimbi for war crimes.

After a fierce battle earlier this year Unita now controls Huambo, the provincial capital of the central highlands, Soyo, the main centre for onshore oil production, and a handful of other towns.

By mining roads and laying ambushes, Unita prevents normal government access to about three-quarters of the country. But about 65 per cent of Angola's 10 million people are now in and around towns, about one third of them displaced by the war.

Unita has also seriously damaged Angola's oil production and the government has lost control of one of the diamond regions. According to sources in the diamond industry, Unita representatives are selling diamonds on the Antwerp market.

(Photograph omitted)