THE WORLD FROM ...Huambo, Angola

UNITA's rebels try to ameliorate their international image to turn military gains into political ones

ANGOLAN rebel leaders, who have occupied this devastated city, are seeking international credibility to translate their military victories into political gains - despite their protestations to the contrary.

The brinksmanship and bravado of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in declaring his immunity from international opinion does not tell the full story. By inviting a small group of Western journalists behind government lines, Mr. Savimbi, who heads the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), acknowledged his reliance on international opinion.

"Just as these journalists have come to visit Huambo, we will soon see food and medicines arriving here on humanitarian flights," UNITA Information Secretary Jorge Valentim told a crowd of UNITA supporters in Huambo last week.

Since Savimbi rejected the UN-certified outcome of the country's first democratic ballot in September, UNITA has lost international sympathy and credibility. UNITA feels betrayed by the international community - and particularly the United Nations - because they did not concur with its cries of election fraud.

In an interview with the journalists, Savimbi displayed a degree of frustration with Western nations and admitted that he had lost substantial international support. "But it will not stop us from achieving our objectives if we are doing the right thing," he said.

Ironically, he then waxed lyrical about UNITA's "very encouraging" talks with US administration officials in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, last month and the vital role that the United States was playing - and would play - in the future of Angola.

This was a remarkable change from the war of words in January between UNITA and the US over rebel threats to attack US oil interests in the northern enclave of Cabinda.

"UNITA has learned that there is no such thing as a military solution in the interrelated world of the 1990s," a Western diplomat says. "Even a group as isolated as UNITA has to win support for its case in the international community."

UNITA's tune changed sharply after its meeting with the US in Abidjan last month. It stopped beating the drum of election fraud and is resigned to anticipated US recognition of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government.

For its part, the US has put its weight behind a resumption of humanitarian aid linked to a cease-fire. It also supports the principle of power-sharing but is leaving it up to UNITA and the MPLA to arrive at a mutually acceptable formula.

"We think the Clinton administration has been prudent," said UNITA Washington representative Jado Muekalia.

UNITA's wave of aggression against the international community nearly backfired after a vicious verbal attack April 11 on UN special envoy Margaret Anstee by UNITA's Radio Vorgan. Vorgan had accused her of a pro-MPLA bias, questioned her character, and made thinly-veiled death threats against her. UNITA diplomats had to make public apologies and distance themselves from the attack when it appeared to jeopardize the Abidjan talks.

Before the Vorgan broadcast, UNITA hard-liners were openly critical of Anstee. During the week-long visit to Huambo, "Go home Anstee" posters - and others accusing her of collaborating in stealing UNITA votes - were displayed at demonstrations staged for the benefit of the visiting journalists.

"Mrs. Anstee is losing her independence of judgment," said Mr. Valentim, also UNITA's chief negotiator. "If Anstee is chairman of the next round of talks, they won't get anywhere."

Precisely the contrary has proved to be the case, however, as Anstee has guided the talks to a promising stage.

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