Angolan leaders win points in credibility battle with rebels. Support from former opposition leader seen as significant gain

By winning over Daniel Chipenda, Angola's government has scored a victory in its bid to counter the growing credibility that opposition leader Jonas Savimbi has gained among Western diplomatic circles. Mr. Chipenda is a veteran Angolan leader formerly identified with the pro-American National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). The FNLA was considered the most anticommunist of the movements fighting for independence, and later of the opposition movements to the Angolan government of the Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA).

Although the FNLA has been considered defunct in recent years, Mr. Savimbi has boasted that it has regained force and is fighting alongside his National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in northern Angola.

Chipenda, who has lived in exile in Lisbon since 1979, was recently pictured on the front page of the Lisbon newspaper Africa, embracing Angolan Ambassador Mawete Joao Baptista. Declaring his support for the government of the ruling MPLA, he said he would urge Angolans abroad to return home, burying political differences. The publicity value of Chipenda's return from the cold is seen as significant to the government: He is of the Ovimbundo tribe, from which UNITA draws its strongest support.

His recruitment is part of a wider campaign of national reconciliation by Angola's government, as a political alternative to the diplomatic stalemate that has prevailed for more than a decade.

The United States links independence for Namibia (South-West Africa), ruled by South Africa since the mid-1960s, with the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. But Angola says that the Cuban presence protects it from South African expansionism. The US has recently raised the stakes by giving UNITA military aid.

Although the military battle in Angola between Soviet-backed government forces and the South African-backed UNITA is not likely to diminish, the diplomatic struggle abroad has taken on new importance since President Reagan received Savimbi in Washington in early this year. Mr. Reagan's stance toward Savimbi paved the way for a UNITA breakthrough in Western Europe.

A visit to Portugal this month by Afonso Van Dun'em, the Angolan foreign minister, was a measure of the importance Angola's government is placing on the diplomatic struggle for Western sympathies. After a period of hostility in Portuguese-Angolan relations, Mr. Van Dun'em's visit marked a considerable thaw. It was the most senior visit by an Angolan official since decolonization in 1975. One of Van Dun'em's tasks was to prepare the way for a visit by Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo Dos Santos.

In a recent interview Chipenda said that, among the several hundred thousand Angolans living outside the country, there are around 70,000 trained professionals. He hopes that they can be encouraged to return and take up jobs now performed by foreigners. Cuban and East-bloc technicians play a leading role in Angola's administration. An estimated 30,000 Cubans back government forces.

If Angolans abroad returned, says Chipenda, ``we'd be half-way towards a political solution.''

His stand reflects a growing Angolan determination to break dependence on Soviet aid, and to find an alternative method for dealing with UNITA. Angola's debt to the Soviets is about $1.5 billion.

``It's time we stopped talking about Cubans, Russians, and Americans and started talking about Angolans. External forces should leave us in peace,'' says Chipenda.

After eleven years of war, Chipenda says he feels a particular historic responsibility to contribute to a solution in Angola.

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