The Angolan government and the Unita rebel group signed a ceasefire agreement yesterday, clearing the way for the launch of negotiations to end Africa's longest civil war.
The signing was hailed as the best chance of peace the resource rich but conflict-ridden nation has had in 26 years of civil war.
Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations' under secretary general and top adviser on Angola, said: "There can be no excuses for failure now."
The moves towards peace have been rapid since the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, was killed by the army on 22 February. Savimbi had been a major stumbling block at the negotiating table. On Wednesday, the country's parliament unanimously approved a law granting amnesty to Unita.
As army and Unita leaders signed the agreement, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos held his first meeting with the rebels since 1994. Under the ceasefire deal, the state will provide care for the estimated 300,000 family members of Unita soldiers. Up to 5,000 Unita fighters from Rwanda and Congo will also be repatriated. A joint military commission will monitor the ceasefire, disarm rebel troops and integrate them into army or civilian life.
Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said in Johannesburg that Angola was one of three countries with enormous resources that are now "ripe for peace". She also cited the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. "The three are ripe. I'm not making this up, there's big movement in all three cases," she said on a visit to South Africa to discuss Nepad, the New Economic Partnership for African Development, which is being promoted by President Thabo Mbeki. "If these three enormous countries achieve the peace they are significantly progressing towards, it will be the key to turning Africa around," she said. Ms Short will travel to Angola next week to support the peace process.
The serious prospect of peace in Angola is a major step forward for one of Africa's least developed countries despite the massive problems it faces.
The former Portuguese colony is riddled with land mines and corruption, its infrastructure and economy are destroyed, and its people brutalised. The civil war has claimed some half a million lives, and created four million refugees in and outside Angola.
Since the end of the Cold War – in which South Africa and Cuba were, respectively, American and Soviet proxies – the conflict has largely been financed by Angola's government through oil revenues and by Unita through the smuggling of "blood diamonds".
But yesterday Abreu Karmorteiro, Unita's military commander, promised the rebels would honour an accord to assure Angolans "a definitive peace". The chief of staff of the Angolan armed forces, General Amando Da Cruz, said his troops would undertake "this great task – to restore peace".
The formal signing ceremony, held in the capital Luanda and attended by senior UN officials and the troika of nations monitoring Angola – Portugal, Russia and America – followed an accord sealed in Luena in eastern Angola on Saturday after two weeks of negotiations.
Afterwards, Mr dos Santos met Unita's interim commander, General Paulo Lukamo "Gato". It was reported that Unita fighters were already going to some of 27 assembly points designated for disarmament.
On Wednesday, after parliament's endorsement of peace, Mr Dos Santos told his ravaged nation: "The war is over and peace has come back for good", and declared yesterday a national holiday.
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