Rebels Blamed as Angolan Talks Derail

United States, Portugal, and Russia vow `appropriate' response after peace effort fails

THE United States, Russia, and Portugal are weighing tougher action against Angola's rebel movement following its failure to attend United Nations-backed peace talks in Ethiopia, diplomats say.

Representatives of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) failed to appear despite a three-day extension and promises by the UN and the Angolan government that the delegation would be protected.

The collapse of the cease-fire talks comes amid escalating fighting in Angola, which erupted after the country's first democratic ballot last September. Civil strife broke out nationwide, preventing a run-off ballot to test the provisional victory of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

As the UN deadline passed yesterday, Angolan forces loyal to Mr. dos Santos reported heavy fighting in the rebel stronghold of Huambo, Angola's second largest city, situated in the country's central highlands.

Aid workers and diplomats estimate that up to 10,000 people have died in a battle that has raged for more than seven weeks. Neither side has been able to win total control of the city, which has been devastated by constant bombardment from the air and from heavy artillery, diplomats say.

At a Feb. 23 meeting of US, Portuguese, and Russian officials in Lisbon, the three countries, which act as guarantors for a May 1991 peace accord between UNITA and the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), vowed to recommend "an appropriate international response" against the side obstructing the peace process.

An Angolan official close to the talks says the MPLA is now looking to the international community to identify UNITA as the "obstacle to talks" and to the UN to grant the MPLA full diplomatic recognition, a step Washington says is under consideration.

Senior officials of the African National Congress yesterday gave the US Consulate in Johannesburg a letter calling for President Clinton to recognize immediately the MPLA government in Luanda.

The failure of the talks also came as the conflict spilled over into the South African political arena, with the pro-government newspaper Rapport claiming that South Africans are now fighting on both sides in Angola.

In a surprise move, the South African Defense Force claimed Feb. 26 that it had questioned SADF soldiers who had been recruited by agents of the Angolan government to retake a strategic oil installation in the northern Angolan town of Soyo, which was in rebel hands.

Defense Minister Eugene Louw warned SADF members that recruiting or being recruited as a mercenary was a punishable offense and that action would be taken against offenders.

The Angolan government has repeatedly claimed that support is reaching the UNITA rebels from South Africa. The latest Angolan claim came over the weekend when a senior official said that two South Africans had been captured near Huambo.

Pretoria officials have denied that the government is involved in any effort to aid UNITA and has said it will investigate whether other elements might be supplying the rebel movement.

The Weekly Mail, a liberal South African weekly, said Feb. 26 that Russian Antonov transport planes were being used to ferry South African arms from the nominally independent homeland of Bophuthatswana to southern Zaire, where they were made available to rebels.

The Pretoria government has denied knowledge of the flights and the Russian company African Aeroflot has denied that its planes have flown arms to Zaire.

Russia's ambassador to South Africa, Eugeny Goussarov, said Russian Aeroflot cargo aircraft operating south of the equator were involved in conveying relief supplies for the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross. A UN spokesman, however, said none of the UN's aid flights to African countries originated from South Africa or the black homelands.

International aid and health officials have expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Angola.

Many Angolan towns are cut off from road and communication links as a result of the war and depend on airlifts by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) for their survival.

After recently sending an assessment team to Angola, the WFP is planning to airlift some 240,000 tons of food to stranded civilians around the country - the largest airlift of its kind for the WFP. The organization estimates that about 3 million people are under threat from hunger and disease - including 1.5 million who have been displaced since the September poll. The fighting - as well as slowing humanitarian aid - will mean a poor harvest in 1993, the WFP says.

"Whatever stocks of food people had will be quickly exhausted, the harvest looks poor, the destruction of infrastructure and the loss of life are enormous," says Philippe Borel, WFP director in Luanda.

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