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COLUMN ONE : Hired Guns Turn Tide in Angola : A motley crew of mercenaries and combat veterans from Africa's battles has helped put tenacious UNITA rebels on the ropes in a bitter civil war. One result could be a new peace accord.


CABO LEDO, Angola — Trim and tan, polished and polite, former South African secret agent and commando Eeben Barlow is the very model of a modern mercenary.

At 38, he heads Executive Outcomes, a multimillion-dollar corporation that employs 500 or so fellow soldiers of fortune, including a motley crew of former assassins, spies, saboteurs and scoundrels. They hail from half a dozen nations and are veterans of combat around the globe.

Most fought in losing battles to save colonial reigns and racist regimes in countries such as Congo, Kenya, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and especially South Africa. Many worked for apartheid's most sinister security forces.

But this is no ordinary band of rogues.

"We are dynamic, professional and work to achieve success," Barlow explained at his bush headquarters here, a former Cuban air base. "We are profit-driven, and our profit depends on the satisfaction of the client."

The company logo--emblazoned on calling cards, not to mention tie tacks and cuff links--is a paladin, the same chess knight featured on the old TV series "Have Gun, Will Travel."

These hired guns have traveled to what the United Nations has called the world's deadliest war. Now, under their second $20-million contract from the Angolan government, Barlow's men have spent 14 months helping to train a ragtag army of conscripts, and they plan and coordinate fighting in key battles.

Even their critics concede that the self-described "military consultants" have helped the long-beleaguered government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos gain territory and a decided advantage in the long, bitter war against Jonas Savimbi's rebel UNITA movement.

Other factors were also critical. Independent analysts say UNITA has been hard pressed by an international arms and oil embargo and the loss of lucrative diamond-producing areas, which paid for the war effort.

The result is that the rebels are increasingly on the ropes.

"There's no doubt FAA (Forcas Armadas de Angolanas, the government army) has the upper hand now," said Yvon Madore, a senior U.N. official in Luanda, the refugee-clogged capital. "UNITA has lost momentum."

That explains why the government and UNITA may sign a U.N.-brokered peace pact next month after almost a year of stormy talks in neighboring Zambia. It calls for demobilization of combatants, U.N. peacekeeping troops and ultimately a government based on power-sharing.

But many doubt that the "Lusaka Accord" will bring lasting peace--or even a cease-fire--in a 19-year-old war that the world has largely forgotten.

UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, now controls about a third of the countryside, less than half what it held a year ago. It has signed peace pacts before but used the time to resupply and regroup forces. In 1992, Savimbi even ran in U.N.-supervised elections. When he lost, he cried fraud and resumed the war with a vengeance.

But for the first time, the Dos Santos government is in a position of strength. It has international legitimacy from winning democratic elections, plus an estimated $2 billion in new arms and equipment. The air force, now able to bomb at night, controls the skies. Morale has improved.

As a result, government hard-liners insist that Savimbi can now be beaten, or at least pushed back to the bush. They want to force UNITA from diamond-producing areas and cut its supply lines to Zaire.

Heavy fighting along the border last week after months of calm suggests that the hawks are getting their way.

"Why should the government share power if they can beat them militarily?" asked Mike McDonagh, country director for the Irish aid group Concern.

Government troops are entrenched about 30 miles outside of Savimbi's last urban stronghold, the central highlands city of Huambo, and slowly closing in from three sides. Losing Huambo would be a decisive defeat for UNITA, which captured the battered city last year after a fierce 55-day siege.

As always, civilians have borne the brunt. The United Nations estimated last year that up to 1,000 Angolans were dying each day of war-related wounds, hunger and disease.

Aid officials say the toll probably has not fallen much. They say one-third of the population of 11 million is directly affected by the war.

Until recently, aid groups and the United Nations were unable to fly badly needed food and medicine to most major cities because of fighting or other problems. Kuito, where an estimated 25,000 people died last year, was especially hard hit. Relief flights, stopped since May, resumed only in mid-October.

"The problem now is a lot of bodies are buried in people's gardens," said Sarah Longford, spokeswoman for the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Unit in Luanda. "When the rains come, there will be a real health risk."

Angola is potentially one of Africa's wealthiest countries. It is a fertile land rich with oil and diamonds. But millions of land mines still in the soil will ensure heavy casualties for years to come.

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