CABINDA, Angola — Oil from from Cabinda province kept the economy afloat through a devastating 16-year civil war and made Angola the second-largest petroleum producer in black Africa.
The war is over, but Angola's oil riches are under a new threat from a revived separatist movement that is turning increasingly to violence.
"We want independence, and if we don't get it, there will be armed struggle," said Arthur Tchibassa, a spokesman for the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda. "Cabinda will never be at peace."
Cabinda is bordered by Zaire, Congo and the Atlantic Ocean, separated from the rest of Angola by the Congo River and 40 miles of Zairian territory.
The symbol of its wealth is the heavily guarded base of Cabinda Gulf Oil Co. at Malongo, 12 miles north of Cabinda town. Cabinda Gulf, a subsidiary of the U.S. oil company Chevron, produces 55% of Angola's 550,000 barrels a day.
Oil sales brought $3.15 billion into Angola last year, more than 90% of all export earnings. Angola is the sixth-largest foreign supplier to the United States and second only to Nigeria as an African oil producer.
Sixty percent of Angola's oil comes from Cabinda, and the separatists say the province does not get a fair share of the profits.
Recently, they have increased attacks on Cabinda Gulf, burning company buses, firing at the base and threatening the lives of employees.
"We are not against the multinationals, but Chevron has exploited Cabinda's oil for 16 years with the Angolan government, and the Cabindan people have not benefited," Tchibassa said by telephone from Kinshasa, capital of Zaire.
Cabinda Gulf's 1,600 employees include 225 Americans, most of them from Chevron's home bases in Houston and San Francisco. Company spokeswoman Kim Lan Conradt said the Americans are not in danger because the Malongo base is well guarded.
During the Angolan civil war, Cuban troops allied with the Marxist government defended American oil workers from possible attack by the forces of UNITA, the U.S.-backed rebel group. The wider conflict, which ended last year, overshadowed the activities of Cabindan separatists.
The separatists are divided into several factions and can field only about 750 active guerrillas but have wide support among the population. They operate from bases in the deep tropical forest of Cabinda's interior.
"They are few, but determined," said Paulino Madeca, a Roman Catholic bishop who favors a referendum on Cabinda's future. "I'm worried things are going to get worse."
Portugal made Cabinda part of its Angola colony in the 1930s, half a century after gaining control of the territory in a treaty with local rulers.
Angolan officials accuse neighboring countries, including Congo, Zaire and Gabon, of supporting the separatists because of their own designs on Cabinda's oil riches.
France also has also been accused of supporting the separatists, some of whom want to replace Portuguese with French as the official language.
Both the Angolan government and UNITA, the former rebel group that became a political party, say they are willing to negotiate a statute of autonomy for Cabinda within Angola.
The separatists say they will accept only full independence, however, and have ordered a boycott of September elections that will give Angolans their first chance to chose a government.
Oil companies hope the Angolan cease-fire will allow exploration along the 940-mile coast, on shore and off.
Elf-Aquitaine of France already operates off the northwest coast, and Texaco, a U.S. company, produces oil from Angolan fields near the mouth of the Congo. Petrofina of Belgium operates in northwestern Angola and in the Kwanza River basin near Luanda, the capital.
Angola's oil production has increased nearly fourfold in 10 years.