THE fall of Angola's second largest city, Huambo, to rebels over the weekend could mark the turning-point in the renewed civil war and offers a glimmer of hope for the resumption of cease-fire talks, say Western diplomats. Scheduled talks aimed at a negotiated settlement to the post-election crisis had fallen through because rebel forces failed to attend.
The Armed Forces General Staff of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) announced late Sunday that it had withdrawn its forces from the beleaguered central highlands city after 56 days of heavy fighting.
Huambo, urban headquarters of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), has become the symbolic focus of the undeclared civil war that has raged following UNITA's refusal to accept the MPLA victory in the country's first democratic ballot last September.
The battle for Huambo was regarded by diplomats as crucial to peace efforts to end the war.
"I think UNITA wanted to secure Huambo before going to the negotiating table with the MPLA government," says a Western diplomat close to a behind-the-scenes initiative to revive the collapsed peace accord.
"Now it should be easier for UNITA to start talking and for the MPLA to sit down and work out a power-sharing deal that gives UNITA a place in government commensurate with [the 33 percent] support it won in the election," the diplomat says.
"But the lack of trust between the two sides is so intense now that we don't know what progress can be achieved in the short-term."
UNITA's Vorgan radio claimed Sunday that the rebel movement had won total control of Huambo Saturday and had captured the MPLA governor's residence, and that fighting had abated for the first time in nearly two months.
UNITA's Gen. Demostenes Chilingutila, speaking on the rebel radio, said that rebel forces had overrun the last two Angolan Army garrisons at Huambo and captured 5,000 government soldiers, including ranking officers.
A UNITA official in Paris, Marcelino Georges Sanjeade, said the rebel group was willing to begin peace talks with the government in Geneva next week. UNITA failed to turn up at United Nations-sponsored cease-fire talks in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa Feb. 26.
Huambo's fall is seen as a serious setback for the government of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in its efforts to dictate the terms of a proposed cease-fire.
But an MPLA official described the exodus of government troops as a "strategic withdrawal."
Statements from the government were not encouraging for peace negotiators. Deputy Foreign Minister Joao Miranda described UNITA's offer of renewed peace talks as a "joke." "We must not give importance to this proposal," he said. "In any case it is premature to speak about it.
"The war is not over and the town of Huambo is not lost as UNITA has suggested," Mr. Miranda said in a telephone interview with Portugal's TSF radio yesterday.
Western diplomats said that soldiers were probably waiting for support from government troops who had reached the town of Cubal, about 140 miles west of Huambo.
The MPLA believes that, despite the military setback, it is winning the battle for international and diplomatic support.
Mr. dos Santos responded to developments in Huambo by saying his government would seek foreign military assistance to help drive back the UNITA rebels, who already control an estimated two-thirds of the country.
But diplomats point out that the rebels have already begun to apply pressure to the strategic oil fields in the north of the country - by capturing the town of Soyo and driving UN observers out of Cabinda - and have demonstrated their ability to cut the water supply to Luanda, the capital.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in denouncing recent attacks on UN monitors, said that if a cease-fire were not achieved by April 30, all UN personnel would be withdrawn.
Officials of the three countries that acted as guarantors for the May 1991 peace accords - the United States, Russia, and Portugal - met last week to discuss the breakdown of the cease-fire talks.
US officials are trying to find a new formula to get the parties back to the table and are resisting efforts from other members of the international community to recognize the MPLA government and take a tougher line with UNITA.