Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Angolan Rebel Victory May Facilitate Peace Talks but Government Says Loss of Second City Merely Strategic Withdrawal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Angolan Rebel Victory May Facilitate Peace Talks but Government Says Loss of Second City Merely Strategic Withdrawal

Article excerpt

THE fall of Angola's second largest city, Huambo, to rebels over the weekend could mark the turning-point in the renewed civil war and offers a glimmer of hope for the resumption of cease-fire talks, say Western diplomats. Scheduled talks aimed at a negotiated settlement to the post-election crisis had fallen through because rebel forces failed to attend.

The Armed Forces General Staff of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) announced late Sunday that it had withdrawn its forces from the beleaguered central highlands city after 56 days of heavy fighting.

Huambo, urban headquarters of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), has become the symbolic focus of the undeclared civil war that has raged following UNITA's refusal to accept the MPLA victory in the country's first democratic ballot last September.

The battle for Huambo was regarded by diplomats as crucial to peace efforts to end the war.

"I think UNITA wanted to secure Huambo before going to the negotiating table with the MPLA government," says a Western diplomat close to a behind-the-scenes initiative to revive the collapsed peace accord.

"Now it should be easier for UNITA to start talking and for the MPLA to sit down and work out a power-sharing deal that gives UNITA a place in government commensurate with {the 33 percent} support it won in the election," the diplomat says.

"But the lack of trust between the two sides is so intense now that we don't know what progress can be achieved in the short-term."

UNITA's Vorgan radio claimed Sunday that the rebel movement had won total control of Huambo Saturday and had captured the MPLA governor's residence, and that fighting had abated for the first time in nearly two months.

UNITA's Gen. Demostenes Chilingutila, speaking on the rebel radio, said that rebel forces had overrun the last two Angolan Army garrisons at Huambo and captured 5,000 government soldiers, including ranking officers.

A UNITA official in Paris, Marcelino Georges Sanjeade, said the rebel group was willing to begin peace talks with the government in Geneva next week. UNITA failed to turn up at United Nations-sponsored cease-fire talks in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa Feb. …

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