AS the cloud of red dust stirred up by the propellors of the Russian Antonov 12 transport plane settled, Lt. Col. Sabino Comigo stepped down onto the runway of this southern rebel stronghhold with confidence.
Only two years ago the Antonov would have been delivering lethal Soviet arms to the Cuban-backed Angolan troops of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
Now, however, the Russian aircraft was delivering corn to the MPLA's rivals in Angola's 17-year civil war, the United States- and South African-backed guerrillas of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Airlifts to troops
Today, six Antonovs leased by the South African government make cargo flights between the two countries. Others take supplies to demobilized UNITA soldiers, known as the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FALA), and MPLA soldiers, known as the Popular Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) - rival armies encamped at United Nations-monitored assembly points across the country.
By Sept. 17 the UN estimated that half of an estimated 80,000 FAPLA troops had been demobilized. Only 25 percent of UNITA's estimated 40,000 FALA troops had been demobilized.
For Colonel Comigo, an urbane Luanda-based officer of the UNITA rebel movement, the irony of such a turnaround has already begun to wear off.
"That was war," he said when asked how it felt to be traveling on a plane of UNITA's arch rival. "Now it's peace - we're friends."
An uneasy peace has prevailed here since the MPLA's Jose Eduardo dos Santos and UNITA's Jonas Savimbi signed an accord in May 1991 brokered by the US, Portugal, and the Soviet Union.
But tensions have been rising sharply in the run-up to next Tuesday's first-ever democratic elections which will determine whether Mr. dos Santos, the Angolan president who shed Marxism-Leninism in favor of a democracy, or Mr. Savimbi, the Chinese-trained rebel leader who opted for peace, will lead the country into the future.
Mutual suspicion is rife. UNITA accuses the MPLA of building up a new army under the guise of an elite anti-riot police. The MPLA accuses UNITA of making a mockery of demobilization and stockpiling weapons near the UN assembly areas.
"One wakes up rather nervously every morning ... but things are going in the right direction," says UN Special Envoy Margaret Anstee, director of the United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM II).
UNAVEM II is monitoring the electoral process and verifying the demobilization of troops by the Angola Joint Verification and Monitoring Commission (CMVF). The CMVF, which was set up by the peace accords, consists of both UNITA and MPLA officers.
"I hope Angolans can make quicker progress with demobilization of troops and the setting up of the new army because these delays are the main cause of instability," Ms. Anstee says.
During the past four weeks there have been at least half a dozen incidents where demobilized FAPLA soldiers have hijacked planes, seized airports, and exploded ammunition dumps to protest against the lack of transport, food, and employment once they have been disarmed.
Less than 10,000 of the proposed 50,000-soldier new national army known as the Armed Forces of Angola - roughly 20 percent - has been trained and assigned to their new barracks. UN assembly points
Diplomats take heart from the fact that most of the remaining soldiers are confined to monitored assembly points.
Anstee says it would be sufficient for the maintenance of peace if all remaining troops were assembled in civilian clothes in designated assembly points by the day of the ballot.
A summit between Dos Santos and Savimbi on Sept. 7 - in which they agreed to Sept. 27 as the date for the dissolution of the two armies and committed themselves to work for a government of national unity - appears to have cooled temperatures.
Tensions in military assembly points have been defused, too, by a nationwide effort by the World Food Program (WFP), the UN agency that is providing food to about 460,000 civilians displaced by the war and to restless soldiers in the assembly points.
The provision of three C-130 Hercules transport planes by the US Air Force in August has played a major role in accelerating the demobilization of assembled FAPLA soldiers. These aircraft fly food and clothing to assembly points and then fly out the demobilized soldiers.
The FALA assembly point at Mavinga reflected the discipline, organization, and military precision that has become UNITA's hallmark.
But there was little evidence of the roughly 5,600 women and children UNITA officers claimed were living at the assembly points. And international aid workers based near the camp told The Monitor that many "demobilized" soldiers were still in the area.
Arms and ammunition were neatly stored in a UN-monitored armory and UNITA officers insisted that the roughly 4,000 soldiers were in the process of being demobolized. But many international monitors and aid workers are skeptical about UNITA's ability to make the change from a highly authoritarian guerrilla movement to a participant in a civil, democratic government.
"The transformation from a military to a political form is difficult and is taking time," says Jeffrey Millington, head of the US Liaison Office in Luanda. "To form a government, they will have to rely heavily on the civil service and be open to some sort of cooperation with the existing administration."
In an MPLA assembly point near Cuito in Bie province, about 3,000 FAPLA soldiers spent their time hoping that the government would meet its promises of food, clothing, and employment.
In contrast to the UNITA assembly area in Mavinga, there was a carefree atmosphere. The soldiers appeared to spend their days doing menial jobs and morale appeared to be low.
"I'm fed up with this whole situation," says Batista Joao Maneli, who lost his right leg in a landmine explosion in 1990.
"I am only going to vote if they let me go home. If they keep me here, I'm not going to vote for anyone."