FEARS of an escalation in political killings in Angola are mounting in diplomatic and aid circles in the capital, Luanda, following the collapse of peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 30.
Ideological cleansing - known in Angola as limbeza - has become a feature of the undeclared civil war that has engulfed the country since the first democratic elections in September last year.
Aid workers say that thousands of Angolans have died in systematic political killings carried out by armed civilians and special police loyal to the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and by rebels of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Diplomats say the Addis Ababa peace talks foundered because the MPLA government rejected rebel demands to disband the police force and sanctioned vigilante groups.
In an interview with the Monitor Jan. 22, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos justified the practice of arming civilians and using the special police to suppress UNITA rebels. He rejected allegations that his government was following a policy of "ideological cleansing."
"There is no ideological motivation - there is a patriotic motivation in the sense of legitimate defense, to defend what is ours," he said. "The local people have acted in their legitimate defense because they felt offended by the military activities of UNITA.
"There are no [government] excesses," he said. "On the contrary, it is the policy of UNITA to carry out massacres in the areas which it occupies."
UNITA could mount a siege of the capital, Luanda, diplomats say.
"It's not inconceivable that UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi could conquer the joint," a Western diplomat in Luanda says. "But he would have to kill just about everyone in Luanda to achieve that."
UNITA rebels effectively cut off the capital's water supply in a sabotage attack on a waterworks 18 miles outside Luanda Jan. 24. Diplomats say the next target could be two power plants situated about 90 miles and 28 miles respectively outside Luanda.
Still, diplomats say UNITA is unlikely to attack the capital, which is solidly behind President dos Santos' MPLA government.
"He is more likely to attempt to bring the city to its knees by cutting off the power and water and then mounting a protracted siege," the Western diplomat says.
There is no full accounting of the number killed nationwide since the first democratic elections in September last year. But aid workers say it could be tens of thousands. Luanda officials claim that at least 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 1.5 million Angolans face starvation unless emergency food airlifts can be resumed soon.
UN monitors have been driven out of more than 45 of 67 outstations and aid flights to UNITA-held towns have been suspended. Diplomats estimate that UNITA rebels control between 60 percent and 70 percent of the country.
Political killings first came to light in Luanda at the end of October when hundreds of UNITA supporters - including senior UNITA officials - were killed by armed civilians and special police loyal to the MPLA. According to eyewitness accounts, MPLA loyalists have also carried out mass killings of UNITA supporters at graveyards.
When UNITA was driven out of the coastal towns of Benguela and Lobito in mid-January it is estimated that more people were killed by armed civilians and special police than were caught in crossfire between soldiers.
UN officials estimate that about 2,000 people died in Benguela alone and about 1,500 in Lobito.
When this reporter visited the Benguela graveyard on Jan. 20 - a week after the fighting - municipal workers were still unloading bodies into mass graves crudely made by earth-moving equipment.
For its part, UNITA has reportedly killed white and mixed-race Angolans, who symbolize the intellectual elite, in the coastal town of Catombela, near Benguela, and in Huambo, UNITA's stronghold in the central highlands.
Western diplomats say the rate of political killings could escalate because leaders of both sides have made no attempt to distance themselves from political assassinations.