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Angola Appears Locked Into an Endless War

January 04, 1988|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JAMBA, Angola — After 12 years of civil war, Angola's Marxist government and the rebels it has been fighting are beginning to realize that neither side can win the conflict but that negotiations to end it are probably distant at best.

Another massive, dry-season offensive by the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola was turned back late last year by the guerrillas of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola with heavy government losses. The government now has little hope of ever capturing the guerrillas' extensive base area in southeast Angola.

This stalemate seems unlikely to change as long as UNITA, as the guerrilla movement is known from its Portuguese initials, has South African backing, including active combat support, and receives highly effective anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons from the United States.

Soviet, Cuban Support

But if UNITA cannot be beaten, neither can the government--as long as it can count on the support of the Soviet Union, which arms it, and of Cuba, which provides an estimated 37,500 troops and advisers to Angola.

While UNITA has spread its guerrilla war widely through the country in the last three years, even to the outskirts of Luanda, the capital, it has succeeded only marginally in expanding the territory that it controls--about a third of the country--and it has no prospects of defeating the government militarily.

The outlook for Angola's estimated 8.6 million people thus seems one of endless war.

"This is a struggle for the future of Angola and more broadly for the future of southern Africa," a Western European ambassador commented in Luanda a few months ago. "That means neither side will give up easily--they have already fought the Portuguese for a decade to get independence and then each other for a decade to see who will rule.

"This may pain us when we think of the suffering that war brings, but given our history in Europe of the Thirty Years' War and the Hundred Years' War, it should not surprise us."

The Angolan government recently estimated that 60,000 people had died in the conflict, but UNITA officials said the total might be almost twice that.

"We should not let Angola bleed to death," Jonas Savimbi, president of UNITA, said in a recent interview at his headquarters here. "We should talk, we should negotiate, we should begin a dialogue today on ending this war."

That, as far as the government is concerned, would mean a victory for UNITA, and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos last month again rejected suggestions that the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola discuss sharing power with UNITA, castigating the rebel movement as a puppet of "racist South Africa."

Peace Desired

"It is a dream to entertain thoughts of reconciliation between the glorious Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Workers Party and the traitors who allied themselves to the most shameful political system of our era--apartheid," the government radio said in a commentary. "We are a peaceful people who desire peace, but not at any price."

A deep gulf of bitterness, now hardening into hatred, divides the two rival movements, making prospects for peace remote.

Their differences go back to the long fight for independence from Portugal, Angola's colonial ruler for nearly five centuries. Each not only questions the contribution of the other in that struggle but also accuses it of betraying the goals of independence.

When Portugal began to pull out of Angola in 1974, after a military coup d'etat in Lisbon and years of guerrilla warfare in its African colonies, three rival Angolan liberation movements--each rooted in different parts of the country, among different ethnic groups, with different political philosophies and different foreign backers--turned their guns on one another in fratricidal warfare.

Power Is at Issue

Then, as now, the issue was who would rule, what would be the government's policies and which foreign patron would wield the most influence in this country.

The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the oldest major nationalist movement, had its roots among Luanda-area intellectuals and won backing from the Mbundu, the country's second largest ethnic group, with 23% of the population, as it turned to guerrilla warfare.

UNITA, socialist in philosophy like the PMLA, drew its support from the Ovimbundu, the country's largest tribal group--38% of the population--after breaking from a third organization. The latter, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, was based mostly among the Bakongo, the third major tribe at 14% of the population.

A coalition government, established in 1975 by agreement among the three rivals pending national elections, collapsed within months as each accused the others of taking up arms and seeking foreign support. In fact, their enmity went back for years and reflected not only ethnic rivalries but ideological differences, competition for external support, factional intrigues and personal ambitions.

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