Behind-scenes bid to end Angola war draws wide cast of players. Participants work toward reopening of strategic rail line as first step

There is a new twist to the secret diplomacy aimed at ending Angola's 12-year-old civil war. The behind-the-scenes negotiations focus on trying to reopen the strategic and economically important Benguela railway. If the rail line is opened, it could help free the black-ruled states of southern Africa from dependence on white-ruled South Africa for access to the sea.

The key players in this little noticed diplomatic drama represent several nations, rebel movements, and an international company. They include:

UNITA. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, a rebel movement led by Jonas Savimbi and supported by South Africa and the United States.

The Angolan government. Backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, Angola has been locked in a civil war with UNITA since assuming power in 1975.

The United States. First sought to broker peace between Angola and South Africa, but now backs UNITA with an estimated $15 million annually in covert aid.

Morocco. Backed UNITA for two decades, but switched sides last year and established diplomatic ties with the Angolan government.

The Polisario. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of the Western Sahara is a rebel movement backed by Algeria and other leftist African states. It has been fighting Morocco for two decades for control of a phosphate-rich territory on the north African coast.

Zaire. A close US ally, it has served as a conduit for US aid to UNITA and a place of refuge for the rebels. Moroccan soldiers train Zaire's Army and guard its President. Zaire maintains diplomatic ties with Luanda, but relations are chilly.

Lonrho. A giant British multinational corporation, Lonrho has been approached by Angola to manage the Benguela railway once it is reopened.

The first inkling that something was afoot in efforts to break the stalemate in the Angolan war was Mr. Savimbi's offer late last month to allow the reopening of Benguela, which runs from the copper mines of Zambia and Zaire to the Angolan port of Lobito. The only precondition, Savimbi said, was that Angola could not use the railway to transport military equipment or troops.

Savimbi's proposition, according to one senior US government source, is a bid to distance himself from South Africa, and to ``give Luanda something to dig their teeth into, as a first step toward a cease-fire.''

The diplomatic dividends from opening the railway would be significant for both Savimbi and the US. Savimbi is publicly shunned by black African leaders - largely because of his links to the white minority government in South Africa. The US is often accused of hypocrisy by black African leaders for subsidizing rebels that destroy transport lines vital to the southern African states.

Everyone in the southern African region, save South Africa, would stand to gain if the 1,200-mile-long line were reopened. The southern African nations depend on ports in South Africa for 70 percent of their trade. They have appealed to the international community for help in breaking this dependence by reopening and renovating rail and road routes in Angola and Mozambique. Many of these transport arteries have been destroyed either directly by South Africa or by rebel movements which it backs.

The revitalization of the Benguela railway would provide the most direct transport route from southern Africa's rich mineral belt to the Atlantic Ocean, saving both shippers and buyers millions of dollars.

The Angolan government would garner the lion's share of economic gains from Benguela's reopening - including international aid money for renovating the line and the port at Lobito. Reopening Benguela would also help Angola become a more integral part of southern Africa.

Luanda is not expected to respond publicly to Savimbi's offer, according to sources close to the government of Angolan President Jos'e Eduardo Dos Santos.

And this is where the recent rapprochement between Morocco and Angola comes in, according to well-placed diplomatic sources in New York and Washington. Morocco, these diplomats say, may act as an interlocutor between the two warring sides in Angola.

In exchange for dropping its own support for UNITA, Morocco has won assurances from Angola that it will drop its diplmatic support for the Polisario, the diplomatic sources say. Three years ago, Morocco walked out of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), after Angola and other ``leftist'' African states led a successful battle to get the Polisario accredited as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara. Morocco claims the territory as its own, and its overiding foreign policy concern is to whittle away at OAU's support for the Polisario, analysts here say.

Angola's key interest in this quiet tradeoff is to isolate UNITA. The Angolan government, according to observers here, hopes Moroccan officials will help convince Zaire to rescind a recent decision to allow the US to ship weapons to UNITA through Zaire.

In light of the possibility of becoming increasingly isolated by Moroccan and Angolan actions, sources speculate that Savimbi is trying to secure himself a seat at any negotiations between the US and Angola on the issue of Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.

A week after his Benguela announcement, US and Angolan officials met in Brazzaville, Congo, for the first time in a year to discuss an agenda for a second meeting expected in the next few months. Observers say that the Angolans do not want to discuss the UNITA issue with the US. But by raising the issue of Benguela, Savimbi may have found a practical item for which the US can demand his inclusion in future talks.

US officials say they are unaware of the rapprochement between Angola and Morocco. Moroccan officials, however, confirmed that diplomatic relations were established between the two countries last year.

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