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

Times Staff Writer

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.

Residents of Caio Segundo say guerrillas were camped near their jungle village outside Cabinda city Nov. 12 when government troops and two helicopter gunships attacked.

"The shooting started small: 'pow, pow, pow,' " said Chisselena Muaca, 50, who now is in hiding. "Then it became stronger and faster." Several explosions threw up turf, she said, and villagers stumbled and fell under fire.

The firefight was so intense, said Muaca, that she couldn't be sure who was being hit by government fire and who was shot by rebels.

"The shooting was in front of us, in back, on all sides," Muaca said. "I survived because God was with us behind a big tree."

After the smoke cleared, Muaca said, she counted 30 bodies of men, women and children.

"I don't know exactly who cares for us more," Muaca scoffed. "The government doesn't care who it shoots, and FLEC is living in the jungle as poor as dirt."

Muaca's account could not be independently confirmed, as her village is under government control and inaccessible to outsiders. As recently as January, the army rebuffed a U.N. humanitarian mission into the Necuto Commune area, where the village is located. The mission was denied access to any area outside Cabinda's provincial capital.

Two other villagers said they witnessed the attack. And a pair of FLEC guerrillas said they came upon the village a few days after the fighting and saw as many as three dozen bodies, some civilians and others their comrades in arms. All four witnesses spoke on condition that they not be named, fearing government reprisals against them or their families.

The rebel fighters said they also discovered the bodies of three men and a woman in the River Massenga -- bound, gagged and tied to heavy stones. The bodies had decomposed beyond recognition, they said.

Cabindan activists and the Angolan chapter of the Open Society Institute, a program initiated by financier George Soros, published a human rights report in December with a photo of a similarly bound and drowned man they identified as "Vaba." According to the report, Vaba was detained by the Angolan military on suspicion of spying for FLEC, beaten, tied up and thrown into the River Chiloango.

Several Cabindans interviewed for this story said their relatives or neighbors had been sexually assaulted by soldiers. Andre Baza, 35, a nurse in the area of Buco Zau near the Republic of Congo border, said soldiers moved into the home he shared with his wife and three daughters.

On Dec. 2, one of the soldiers stopped his two youngest daughters, Delfina Buiti, 15, and Erdione Menu, 13, on their way to the market, Baza said. The man forced the girls into the jungle at gunpoint, raped and robbed them, and shot them to death, the father said.

Baza said that despite promises to prosecute the soldier, the army has taken no action.

Several people said Angolan investigators detained and tortured Cabindans in order to extract information about FLEC.

In an interview at her home in Cabinda city, Silvana Zinga said soldiers arrested her husband, Ivo Macaia, on Nov. 30 at the home of his other wife. Army officers flew the 41-year-old Macaia, a Cabinda Gulf employee, by helicopter to the Maiombe jungle, where they buried him up to his neck and deprived him of food and water for several days, he later told Zinga. Macaia was questioned about the rebels' kidnapping of Cabinda Gulf employees, Zinga said, adding that he is still in Cabinda city jail.

Two men interviewed said Cabinda Gulf security officials cooperated with government investigations.

Cabinda Gulf worker Andre Zeferino Puati, 34, said he was arrested at his job in August 2001 because he was a leader of a political faction aligned with FLEC. Provincial police and a Cabinda Gulf security manager escorted him out of the company's compound, he said. The police drove him to a detention facility in the city, where he said he was threatened at gunpoint and held for five months.

Freelance journalist Manuel da Costa said he was arrested in November after producing a Voice of America radio segment about a botched rebel rocket attack on a Cabinda Gulf vehicle carrying workers. No one was harmed in the attack.

Speaking through a translator, Da Costa said provincial investigators arrested him at his home in Cabinda city six months after the story aired.

He was questioned for two days, Da Costa said, part of his interrogation taking place at a provincial police station within Cabinda Gulf's Malongo campus. Three local investigators, including one based at the station, interrogated him about his sources for the story and complained that it was unpatriotic of him to broadcast security lapses at Malongo, the journalist said.

Da Costa is free while awaiting trial for treason.

The cooperation of oil security guards and the use of Malongo facilities for interrogations of Cabinda Gulf critics and employees have led some here to accuse the company of assisting the military's offensive.

John Gass, managing director for Cabinda Gulf and ChevronTexaco's Southern African unit, said the companies don't get involved "in any of the political side of things, we expressly stay out of that." Gass said his firms cooperate with law enforcement officials as it would in any other country.

"Frankly, we are not aware ... of any human rights abuses occurring," Gass said. "I don't know how prisoners are treated in Cabinda or Angola or a lot of places we do business, but that hasn't been a big issue for us."

Andrew Mitchell, a State Department spokesman, said the Bush administration is "very concerned about alleged human rights abuses by the Angolan armed forces."

"We urge the Angolan government to respect the rights of all Cabindans during military operations," he said. "And we call upon all separatist groups in Cabinda to renounce violence and to engage in active dialogue with the Angolan government."

However, Father Raul Tati, a Catholic priest and Cabindan activist, charged that Cabinda Gulf and the Bush administration had not done enough.

"If Angola didn't have the oil industry's support, it would not be doing what it is doing," Tati said. "We don't want to accept that Americans are taking our resources and don't care what's happening to us here."

Portugal ruled both Cabinda and Angola until 1975, administering them as separate colonies. When the withdrawing Portuguese left Cabinda in Angolan hands, FLEC took up arms.

Cabinda had been relatively unscathed by the civil war that followed, except for the neglect of the province's infrastructure. Although it receives 20% of the resources allotted for Angola's 18 provinces, it is clear from the lack of schools, hospitals, electricity and water that little has been used to improve the lives of ordinary Cabindans. That plays on the minds of many residents, who say they want no part of the motherland's dysfunction.

"Look at Angola," said one Cabindan man who is a Cabinda Gulf employee. "It leads the world in the number of amputees, its leaders are corrupt, it has no money, it's heavily mined -- why would we want to stay with them? Angola doesn't have an argument for Cabinda, that's why they must use force."

During his Washington visit, President Dos Santos announced support for holding a referendum concerning Cabindan independence. But a spokesman for Angola's still-ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Norberto dos Santos -- who is no relation to the president -- said Cabinda will never be relinquished.

"If we let them go, what about Huambo? What about Lunda Norte?" he said, speaking of two diamond-rich provinces.

"Each province in Angola could try to become a country, and Angola could disappear altogether," Dos Santos said. "It might not be easy to be part of Angola, but that's life."

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