Namibia talks snag on Angola rebels, but Cuban shift welcomed

Negotiations for Namibian independence are beginning to resemble a domestic squabble, with each side disclaiming responsibility for the troublesome ''uncle'' who has come to visit.

The ''uncle'' in this case is the Angolan rebel movement UNITA - the Union for the Total Independence of Angola - led by Jonas Savimbi. The squabbling parties are South Africa and Angola.

Angola and Cuba have set conditions for the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, which South Africa has stated is the only remaining requirement for its granting of independence to Namibia.

The withdrawal conditions were spelled out after a three-day meeting in Havana between Angola's President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

One of those conditions - considered a key one - is that Pretoria end its widely acknowledged support of UNITA, a formidable force that occupies an estimated one-third of Angola.

However, South Africa has always insisted that UNITA is basically an indigenous rebel movement created out of dissatisfaction within the Angolan population with the policies of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) Party.

South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha has asked for a clarification of communique issued at the Cuban-Angola meeting, saying he wanted to know whether the statement's expression of support for the rebel SWAPO movement in Namibia was a repudiation of Angola's earlier agreement to monitor the Angolan-Namibian border in a peacekeeping role.

And just before Mr. dos Santos' visit to Cuba, South Africa explicitly raised the UNITA issue by calling for a regional conference on Namibia that would include the MPLA and UNITA. The MPLA regime promptly rejected the idea of negotiating with UNITA.

The UNITA issue is important, although the stances of Angola and South Africa may be primarily opening negotiating positions, diplomatic sources here say.

Both Angola and South Africa are slightly disingenuous in their depictions of UNITA, analysts say. Pretoria's denials of support for UNITA have never been convincing, particularly when UNITA acknowledges South African aid.

However, analysts also believe UNITA is much more than a South African puppet , and close observers of Angola say UNITA is unlikely to disappear even if it is deprived of South African aid.

Both Angola and South Africa have much at stake in how the UNITA issue is resolved. Analysts here say it is politically important for the Angolan regime to lay the blame for UNITA's strength on an external factor - South Africa.

At the same time, Pretoria sees in UNITA a golden opportunity to gain some influence in Angola.

An MPLA-UNITA rapprochement might lead to a coalition government in Luanda that would have elements more sympathetic to Pretoria. This would be a major achievement for South Africa in its aim of weakening black resistance regionally. Still, diplomatic sources here say they see no sign that the MPLA is preparing to negotiate with UNITA.

The other conditions set by Angola and Cuba for a withdrawal of the estimated 25,000 Cuban troops in that country are:

* Complete withdrawal of South African forces from Angola.

* Acceptance of the United Nations plan for Namibian independence and withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia.

The withdrawal of South African forces from southern Angola, where South Africa fights the Namibian nationalist movement SWAPO, is proceeding under the ''disengagement'' and cease-fire agreement reached between South Africa and Angola in February.

Despite the difficult UNITA issue, diplomatic sources here see the Cuban-Angolan talks about a Cuban troop withdrawal as a positive development.

US Secretary of State George Shultz Tuesday has cautiously welcomed Cuba's agreement to gradually withdraw troops. He said the Cuban-Angolan statement seems to indicate the Cubans and Angolans discussed ''the right subject.''

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