Angola's growing rebellion

Recent news of Angola throws into sharp relief last week's Monitor series reporting - from behind guerrilla lines - on the growing rebellion in that southwest African land.

One item is the claim by Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) that it wiped out a complete government battalion and captured two villages.

Another is the claim by the defense minister of Angola's Soviet-backed government that UNITA is not strong enough to threaten the capital of Luanda, it represents mainly a particular tribe, and it gets all its financial and military support from South Africa.

Fresh background to such items appeared in the Monitor series, based on special correspondent Edward Girardet's seven weeks with the Savimbi forces.

Whatever the casualty counts of the moment, for example, there seems no doubt that UNITA has sprung back militarily from its virtual eclipse after the rival MPLA took over when Angola became independent of Portugal in the mid-1970s. Rebels now claim control over a third of the country and considerable guerrilla influence over another third.

As for threatening Luanda, Savimbi argues that taking it by force is meaningless. It must be taken politically. Indeed, his guerrilla efforts are asserted to be in behalf of achieving negotiation and settlement with the MPLA.

Savimbi's movement does contain a preponderance of his Umbundu people (who constitute about 40 percent of Angola's population). But he says all tribal rights should be respected, no single group should dominate the country, and he is making efforts to give UNITA itself a multiethnic structure.

On the matter of South African support, Savimbi offers a counterpart of the reply so often attributed to rebels who say they have been driven to accept help from communists because no one else will provide it. He deplores South Africa's apartheid, favors Namibia's independence from South Africa, but accepts aid from and through South Africa because others will not give it, or at least not directly.

Savimbi, however, makes a point of candor about the South African connection. It will be recalled that the United States administration wanted to step up covert aid for alternatives to the MPLA during the '70s, and Congress stood in the way. Now it looks as if not only the covertness was a mistake but the administration's leaning toward the least effectual of the independence groups, the FNLA.

There might be a more broad-based government now if Savimbi's UNITA had prevailed in those days instead of the MPLA with its Soviet and Cuban allies. He calls his goal a democratic socialism.

What happens now will depend on what the rulers as well as the rebels do. The MPLA regime's failure to build the economy and to free itself of the Cubans plays into the hands of UNITA. A willingness to negotiate with such an evidently disciplined and popular movement could start the nation toward peace and reduce the economic and political drain of continued conflict.

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