JONAS SAVIMBI, the Angolan rebel leader who has become an international pariah in recent months, is confident that his rebel force can dictate the terms of a political settlement following a major military victory here.
"The loss of international support will not stop us from achieving our objectives if we feel we are doing the right thing in terms of our own evolution," Mr. Savimbi told the Monitor and a small group of Western journalists in his first face-to-face media briefing in five months.
"In the 34 years of my political career I won some support and I lost some.... You cannot dominate it [the international community]," says Savimbi, who has led the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) since its founding nearly three decades ago.
Wearing a bullet-proof vest under a brown safari suit and walking with the aid of a stick, Savimbi fielded questions for nearly two hours in a house that serves as one of his rendezvous points on the outskirts of this shattered city.
Savimbi's palatial residence across town was destroyed early in the 55-day battle for Huambo, which has emerged as a turning point in the civil war that has followed UNITA's rejection of the United Nations-sanctioned outcome of Angola's first democratic elections last September.
UNITA has emerged militarily strengthened from the victory in Huambo while the army of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government suffered its heaviest losses since it seized power in 1975.
"We had to fight back. And we won. That is all," Savimbi says. An estimated 12,000 people - about half of them civilians - died in the battle that destroyed half the city.
UNITA is one of Africa's most powerful and efficient guerrilla armies. It controls more than 70 percent of Angola, including the capitals of four of the 17 provinces: Huambo, Uige, Cuanza Norte, and Zaire.
Top UNITA generals say they are poised to seize the capitals of four more provinces: Moxico, Malange, Bie, and Cuando Cubango. Further military action, they say, will depend on the outcome of the talks now taking place in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
UNITA also controls the diamond fields in the northwest of the country and has encircled the northeastern oil fields in Soyo and begun a build-up around Cabinda, the Angolan enclave in Zaire that produces four-fifths of the country's oil.
The international community faces a dilemma, a Western diplomat says, because "Savimbi has used the military option to achieve ... what he failed to achieve in the election.... We will have to find a balance between recognizing the new realities and making clear that the course of action UNITA has pursued is unacceptable." UNITA wants UN peacekeepers
UNITA's powerful military advisers, who persuaded Savimbi to pursue the military option after top UNITA officials were ambushed and killed by the MPLA in Luanda last October, have sanctioned a return to peace talks.
Savimbi made clear that UNITA will agree to a suspension of hostilities to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid to UNITA-held and -besieged Angolan towns and cities. But he will not enter into another formal cease-fire without a UN peacekeeping force and guarantees of a decentralization of power in a provisional government lasting two to three years. UNITA then seeks a second round of elections under what Savimbi says would be both freer and fairer conditions.
"We have been humiliated for 500 years within our own country," said Savimbi, identifying closely with the central and southern Ovimbundu tribe, which accounts for about 30 percent of Angola's 10 million people. "Now we say with determination: Never again. We have to be accepted equally as Angolans."
Savimbi made clear that the killing of the UNITA supporters in Luanda deepened divisions between UNITA and the MPLA. He says a decentralization of power is now the only way to avert a tribal war that would tear the country apart.
"Decentralization means for us that we should all have a say in the affairs of our country.... That is the only way that I see that we may, one day, get to forget what has happened. We will not achieve it through tanks and guns." He insisted that he does not seek a division of the country with Huambo, Angola's second largest city, as the capital of an Ovimbundu state.
During an eight-day visit to the area with UNITA rebels, this reporter saw captured MPLA tanks in UNITA positions in Bie province - evidence of UNITA's gradual transition from a peasant-based guerrilla movement to a conventional army with an urban base. US recognition of MPLA expected
The fall of Huambo has forced the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos back to the negotiating table and has won UNITA new influence with the United States. US-UNITA relations sank to an all-time low in January when the rebels captured oil-rich Soyo and threatened US-run oil fields off the shore of Cabinda.
Bilateral talks in Abidjan after the fall of Huambo last month struck a more cordial mood as pressure mounted on Washington to recognize the MPLA government. "Sooner or later, the US administration will recognize the regime in Luanda," Savimbi concedes. "But we want the US - as the leading power today following the disappearance of the Soviet Union - to always play a role in Angola, even if they recognize the role of the MPLA."