Angola Appears Locked Into an Endless War

Times Staff Writer

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.

With Cuban assistance, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola defeated the National Front despite support for the latter from Zaire, China and the United States.

UNITA, which originally had Chinese backing, received help from South Africa and the United States but was forced into a long, debilitating retreat that eventually brought it to Jamba, after the U.S. Congress abruptly ended aid to the rebel group and South African forces, which had pushed close to Luanda, withdrew.

Ideological Differences

While serious ideological differences remain, the sharpest issue between UNITA and the government today appears to be foreign assistance--the backing UNITA gets from South Africa and, once again, from the United States, and the government's own dependence on Cuban troops, Soviet military shipments and help from other socialist countries.

"Puppets!" they shout at one another, each arguing that the alliances on the other side would effectively make Angola a foreign colony again.

"Someone like Savimbi in power would be a good defender of apartheid," Lt. Gen. Antono dos Santos Franca Ndalo, chief of staff of the government forces, commented last month, proclaiming Luanda's intention to continue and intensify the war. "The South Africans want to destroy the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the Angolan revolution. They want to place Savimbi in power. That was always their goal."

But Savimbi, who explains his alliance with Pretoria as one of "coincident interests for the moment," is insistent that negotiations and a government of national unity is the only way out for the country.

"We hope to make them see the military option is not a real option," he said here, vowing to step up UNITA's own guerrilla campaign in coming months. "We want them to see that they have no choice but to negotiate with us."

Government Deal Proposed

The government, in fact, is seeking negotiations, but not with UNITA. It is looking toward the rebels' backers, South Africa and the United States, proposing a deal in which most of the Cubans would leave in return for the independence of neighboring Namibia, a former German colony administered by South Africa. That would give it sufficient room, Luanda calculates, to end the threat from UNITA on government terms.

"Without the protection of South Africa just across the border in Namibia, UNITA could not hold Jamba," Lt. Col. Luis Faceira, one of the government's regional commanders, commented during an earlier interview in the southern Angolan city of Lubango. "Without Jamba as a rear base, the (UNITA) bandits would have little ability to send so many units to the north and to support them there. . . .

"We don't need the Cubans to deal with UNITA. If Namibia were independent and the bandits lost South African support and their American weapons, our forces would clean them up in a matter of months . . . and I think that this will happen," Faceira added.

Savimbi nevertheless remains confident that his strategy will force the government into talks with UNITA. He does not need to win militarily if continued battlefield successes lead to internal dissension in Luanda and that in turn promotes the "government of national unity" the rebel leader seeks.

"The (government's) defeat of October and November is there, and it is having a political impact," Savimbi said, speculating that the government could split soon over the question of strategy but uncertain himself whether the hawks or doves in the leadership would win. "More voices are saying that, 'Even if we mount another offensive, we can't win.' This could lead us to the goal we have sought for a long time--a dialogue."

Positive Offer From Zambia

He described as a "very positive development" an offer last month from Zambian President Kenneth D. Kaunda, chairman of the Organization of African Unity, to mediate between the government and UNITA following similar proposals by the presidents of Nigeria and Kenya.

"If other countries in Africa rally behind this," he said, "this is a political victory."

But Savimbi's political leverage depends, first of all, on UNITA's success in spreading its guerrilla war through most of the country, badly disrupting Angola's economy, diverting government efforts from political consolidation and social improvement and diminishing Luanda's control of the countryside.

UNITA, which says it has 35,000 guerrillas in units of 15 to 150 men and 28,000 troops in regular, main-force battalions, claims to be active in all but the southwest corner of the country and says that, from April through November last year, it hit 1,204 targets, killing 2,895 government soldiers while losing 294 in guerrilla actions.

Such figures are dismissed as fiction by officials in Luanda, where government spokesmen assert that "the threat by the UNITA bandits has been successfully contained and is being progressively reduced." Government forces are put at 53,000 regulars and 50,000 militia by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, although UNITA says the current government strength consists of 80,000 regulars and 60,000 militia members.

Economic Development Hurt

What is incontestable, however, is the government's difficulty in providing the security necessary for economic development in much of its territory.

Because of UNITA attacks on the roads and railways, the government relies heavily on airlifts provided by a fleet of Soviet transport planes. What goods do move by road go in convoys protected by heavily armed troops. Even provinces described by the government as secure, such as those in southwest Angola, have as many as 1,000 to 1,200 guerrillas operating in them, according to military spokesmen.

More than 750,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to United Nations' estimates, and only the neutral International Committee of the Red Cross is able to care for the more than 100,000 refugees on the country's central plateau where the guerrilla attacks have been heaviest. So many people have fled the countryside in government areas that Angola can produce only half the food it needs.

While the government contends that security has improved in the past year, UNITA continues to strike within a few miles of many major cities. It abducted three Swedish technicians 12 miles east of Luanda last year, for example, and hit the town of Maquela do Zombo near the Zairian border with three columns of guerrillas a few hours after a visit by Dos Santos. After two of the Swedes were freed--the third died of gunshot wounds--they told of visiting dozens of villages, all apparently filled with UNITA supporters, during their 63-day, 950-mile march through the bush to Jamba.

'Country Tied in Knots'

"UNITA has this country tied in knots," another European diplomat commented in Luanda a few months ago, "and the government has had very little success in untying or cutting through those knots. . . . Insurgencies, whatever their political complexion, are extremely difficult to deal with, and UNITA is proving that rule once again."

The government apparently had hoped that its last dry-season offensive would at least cripple UNITA by threatening its Jamba base, home to 20,000 of Savimbi's soldiers and supporters, and by cutting off its major supply routes to the north.

The offensive was launched in July with 16 brigades totaling 18,000 men, backed by tanks, fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships--altogether at least $1 billion worth of new weapons--and supported by Soviet and Cuban advisers. But its main thrust was halted, according to Savimbi, at the Lomba River in early October by UNITA's main force battalions before government troops reached their major objective, the town of Mavinga. The government had hoped to use Mavinga as a base for a further attack on Jamba.

A second push south from Lucusse, a government stronghold within UNITA territory, was apparently intended to draw UNITA troops away from Mavinga, according to Savimbi, but its armored spearhead was halted with U.S.-supplied anti-tank weapons and the government forces were cut off from their base.

Stinger Missiles Credited

"We stopped the (government's) air power from the beginning, and this was crucial," Savimbi said, crediting the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles given to UNITA by the Reagan Administration as part of a $15-million-a-year arms package. "They had to advance without air cover, and they were stuck in their positions for a month or more. We had what was necessary to defeat them. . . . With the little we got, we achieved a lot."

UNITA also received combat support--long-range artillery bombardment, some air strikes, aerial reconnaissance, resupply flights and medical assistance--from South Africa, although Savimbi described the help as "minimal" and less than UNITA received in defeating a similar government offensive in 1985.

South African officials, however, asserted in November that their troops, apparently protecting UNITA's western flank, had fought a major battle with Soviet and Cuban forces and saved UNITA from defeat.

Denied strongly by Savimbi, Pretoria's claim was debunked solidly by Willem Steenkamp, a leading South African military analyst, who said that no more than 3,000 South African troops, "teeth and tail," had been involved in the fighting, which for them was "one medium-sized and one large action" on one front long after UNITA had routed the government forces.

Pretoria was trying to assure itself a voice in any peace negotiations by reminding UNITA of its dependence on it, Savimbi speculated. However, informed South African sources said the statement stemmed from the political need to explain the unusually high casualties--a reported 27 in a month and probably more--that South Africa's troops had suffered.

High Government Casualties

UNITA put government casualties in the offensive at 2,241 killed--plus 27 Soviet and 21 Cuban advisers--over five months and said it had lost only 158 dead and 724 wounded.

So serious was the government defeat that reports from Luanda said that Cuban troops, perhaps reinforced by a new division, were being put into the front line.

"This is a useless exercise, though I don't believe it's true," said Savimbi, who puts the number of Cubans in Angola at 47,000. "The question is to make those who are here want to fight--they don't. . . . The more Cuban troops they bring in, the more differences they will have with the (government forces) and the people, and the better it is for us."

Important as the defeat of the government's offensive was for UNITA, Savimbi said he wants to avoid such conventional warfare as much as he can.

"We want to prevent them from even being able to mass so many men," he said. "We are shifting. We have to fight inside, we have to tie up the whole army. We are insisting that our commanders strengthen the guerrilla units so they won't be able to send so many brigades in the future."

Besides, he added, conventional warfare costs UNITA much more.

"A one-day confrontation in conventional warfare would pay for six months of guerrilla attacks," he said.

Inexperience a Problem

Government forces, organized and equipped as a regular army to counter South African threats, have found it difficult to deal with the UNITA guerrillas, Luanda officials said. Their inexperience, particularly in handling the sophisticated weapons systems that they are buying from the Soviet Union and managing the logistics necessary to support them, has compounded the problems in dealing with UNITA.

"Guerrilla warfare is something we know well after fighting the Portuguese," Miguel de Carvalho, director of the government press center and himself a former guerrilla, said in Luanda. "It is one thing to wage such a war, we have found, and another thing to fight it. . . . But we are confident of victory simply because our cause is just and theirs is not. Guerrilla tactics will not guarantee the success if the people do not support you."

But Savimbi claims increasing support and points to the steady growth of his guerrillas and regular forces--which are composed entirely of volunteers, he says, in contrast to the government's conscripts--as evidence of UNITA's popularity in the countryside.

"Our guerrillas now control a lot of what had been (government) territory," he said. "The people look after our guerrillas, and that is why we have been able to advance so far, so quickly in the past three or four years. If we were not advancing, they would not be launching such big offensives against us."

Michael Parks, The Times' bureau chief in Johannesburg, South Africa, was recently on assignment in Angola.

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