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Angolan Strife Threatens a Key Source of U.S. Oil

Rights abuses reportedly are on the rise as troops battle rebels in Cabinda, a ChevronTexaco base.

March 16, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

CABINDA, Angola — The Angolan armed forces are surging through this remote province to end a rebellion that has threatened a U.S. petroleum giant operating here and could vex President Bush's plans to reduce America's need for Middle East oil.

And as Angola escalates what had been a low-intensity conflict, civilians are being caught in the cross-fire.

This African nation of 10.5 million emerged from 27 years of civil war last year after troops killed Jonas Savimbi, rebel leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA. In its haste to consolidate power and to control oil resources, the government has moved more than 10,000 soldiers -- including many former UNITA fighters who recently joined the armed forces -- into this northern province to destroy a guerrilla movement called the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda.

Most of the front's 2,000 guerrillas have fled, some into hiding in this provincial capital and others to rural villages or the wilderness along the borders of Congo and the smaller Republic of Congo.

Witnesses in rural villages say the military has killed, detained and tortured civilians to intimidate the populace and flush out rebels belonging to FLEC, as the front is called.

A United Nations "needs assessment" in January found a disturbing trend over the last few months of rapes committed by soldiers, according to officials at the world body.

The army also has forced Cabindans from their homes, leaving many villages deserted or garrisoned by troops, according to U.N. officials and witnesses. One U.N. official estimated that 45,000 villagers have fled into the jungle or into neighboring countries.

Separated from the Angolan mainland by a strip of the larger Congo's savanna and the Congo River, this pistol-shaped enclave of 150,000 people has one of the world's major petroleum reserves, producing two-thirds of Angola's oil.

Cabinda is particularly important to Angola because the oil industry is the only economic sector that survived the civil war, accounting for 90% of this nation's export revenue. During that long conflict, petrodollars enabled the government to spend a third of the gross domestic product on defense.

At the center of the current dispute is the Cabinda Gulf Oil Co. -- a wholly owned subsidiary of ChevronTexaco Corp. of San Ramon, Calif. Sonangol, a state-owned petroleum company, is ChevronTexaco's partner in Angola and a source of much of the country's wealth. Angola, which produces about 900,000 barrels a day and about $4 billion in annual oil exports, accounts for nearly 4% of the U.S. oil supply, binding it to America's national interests.

Despite revelations by the international watchdog group Global Witness that as much as $1.4 billion in government revenue was unaccounted for in 2001, the country remains key to Bush's plans to reduce U.S. reliance on the Middle East by turning to oil producers in western Africa. That policy is taking on greater urgency as the administration prepares for possible war with Iraq and as political unrest has slowed Venezuela's oil production.

In the last year, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos met with Bush in Washington and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Luanda, the Angolan capital. At congressional hearings in October, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner testified that U.S. "engagement with the [Angolan armed forces] will need to increase" to stabilize the African country and advance human rights.

Even as Kansteiner spoke, government troops -- many of them dispatched from former UNITA strongholds in southern Angola -- were pushing FLEC fighters from Cabinda's interior to the border areas. The outgunned rebels blended in with jungle populations, using noncombatants as camouflage.

"It is as Mao Tse-tung said," said Father Jorge Casimiro Congo, a Roman Catholic priest in Cabinda. " 'The guerrilla must move among the people as the fish swims in the sea.' "

The military, however, perfected scorched-earth techniques in its war against UNITA, destroying villages and cutting off food supplies to drive the guerrillas into the open. That practice displaced millions of people and plunged much of Angola into near-famine conditions.

Some Cabindan villagers said they had feared FLEC's close proximity to them would attract the government's wrath but dared not ask the guerrillas to decamp. Last year, human rights groups condemned the rebels' practice of taxing rural residents and cutting the ears and noses off those who failed to pay.

The movement has also kidnapped oil workers and in 2001 abducted an Angolan worker and five foreign employees of a Portuguese construction firm. In the 1990s, the group fired mortar shells at Cabinda Gulf's compound in Malongo, a suburb of the provincial capital, though no injuries were reported.

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