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The World

Angola and Rebels Sign Cease-Fire Agreement

April 05, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Angolan government and the UNITA rebel group signed a formal cease-fire agreement Thursday, in what was heralded as the best hope yet for peace in a country that has been racked by civil war for more than a quarter of a century.

White flags fluttered outside the parliament building in Luanda, the Angolan capital, as leaders of the army and UNITA shook hands and exchanged hugs after signing the accord.

The pact came only six weeks after hard-line UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi--seen as a major hindrance to previous peace efforts--was tracked down and killed in a battle with government troops in southeastern Angola.

"This [cease-fire] could be a real turning point," said Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of State for African affairs during the Reagan administration, who now teaches at Georgetown University. "We have to hope it will succeed."

Joao Porto, an Angola specialist with the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank, agreed.

"This is what each Angolan has been waiting for for decades, a chance to develop the country in peace and normalcy," he said.

Details of the 40-page agreement weren't revealed, but government officials acknowledged that it includes amnesty for UNITA fighters. It also guarantees the disarming and integration of about 50,000 UNITA rebels and their families into the armed forces and civilian positions. The United Nations has agreed to monitor the demobilization process, which is to begin next week.

Interim UNITA leader Paulo Lukamba told reporters Thursday that the accord would legalize the rebel group and make it the country's main opposition party.

Analysts had widely predicted that Savimbi's death would hasten Angola's peace process, although few expected a deal would be signed so swiftly.

Crocker and Porto said the accord was apparently expedited by the Feb. 22 slaying of Savimbi; the death little more than a week later of his successor, Gen. Antonio Dembo; and recent heavy battlefield losses by UNITA.

Porto said fighters belonging to UNITA, the Portuguese initials for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, were beginning to suffer from a condition afflicting many Angolans: war fatigue.

Thus, although previous cease-fire agreements were broken and abandoned in 1991 and '94, analysts said there were several reasons to believe that the latest accord would hold.

Porto said the government had shown significant goodwill by agreeing to integrate 50,000 UNITA members when recent estimates suggest that the number of fighters has dwindled to fewer than 10,000.

Porto and Crocker said the success of the cease-fire agreement depends on whether UNITA's new leadership can sell the accord to its military faction, its parliamentary group and its external wing in Portugal and other countries.

"There is reason to be cautiously optimistic," Porto said. "We have to realize this is the beginning of a very long road."

Angolans, who fought a 14-year armed struggle against Portuguese rule, have known little but conflict since they gained independence in 1975. That was when Savimbi, who saw himself as the champion of the country's disenfranchised black majority, took up arms against government troops belonging to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA.

The conflict between UNITA and the MPLA became a Cold War affair. The United States and South Africa's then-apartheid government supported UNITA against the Marxist MPLA government, which received weapons and fighters from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The civil war devastated Angolans. About 1.5 million people, according to CIA estimates, have been killed in the conflict. An additional 4.5 million of the country's 13 million people were driven into refugee camps and temporary shelters far from their home villages.

Angola, about twice the size of Texas, is one of Africa's richest countries, with vast oil, diamond and fishing reserves. Little of that wealth trickles down to ordinary people. More than 75% of Angolans live in poverty.

For a quarter of a century, the warring parties funded the conflict by selling oil and diamonds. UNITA sold diamonds from several mines it controlled and bought weapons with the proceeds.

Just last week, the London-based charity Global Witness issued a report alleging that top Angolan government officials exploited the war to embezzle oil revenue through bank loans, kickbacks on arms trafficking and a highly overpriced military procurement process.

"We're hoping that this new cease-fire deal eventually leads to a climate where ordinary people will be able to call on their government to account for revenue," said Gavin Hayman, a Global Witness official.

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