`WE are prepared to take Kuito at any time, if necessary," said the dapper rebel general, Arlindo Pena, as he emerged from a tidy underground bunker on the outskirts of this central highlands city.
Nearby, rebel tanks were in position under camouflage of foliage. They had been captured from government forces in the battle for Huambo, Angola's second biggest city.
The capture of Huambo and the deployment of tanks and heavy artillery symbolizes the transformation of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) from a guerrilla army to a more conventional force after almost two decades in the bush.
[Yesterday, a rebel radio station said heavy fighting took place between rebel and government forces in several parts of southern Angola, Reuters reported.]
General Pena - or "Ben-Ben," as the legendary UNITA military chief of staff is known to his colleagues - was speaking in a rebel camp behind battle lines about a mile outside this highlands provincial capital.
The last time Pena was seen in public was when state television displayed what it described as his charred and mutilated corpse after government forces killed top UNITA officials and more than 2,000 UNITA supporters in the capital, Luanda, late last year. Rebel demands
In a Monitor interview, the rebel general made clear that UNITA would resume hostilities only if the government of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) refused to accede to UNITA demands issued at UN-brokered peace talks in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which began April 13.
"From the side of UNITA there is a will for peace," Pena said. "But we are ready to march on the capital if the MPLA reverts to its old tricks."
UNITA appears to have the upper hand militarily and was therefore able to extract the first major concessions from the MPLA. The talks made progress toward an agreement on decentralized power-sharing in a government of national unity but failed to produce a cease-fire agreement, according to Western diplomats.
"If the MPLA had been able to make more military progress, they would never think of making concessions at the negotiating table," Pena said. "We are reorganizing our troops to force the MPLA to come to take our demands seriously."
The MPLA wants the resumption of humanitarian aid to be linked to a full and immediate cease-fire. UNITA's more gradual approach calls for a simultaneous suspension of hostilities and a resumption of humanitarian aid to UNITA-held and -besieged towns. This would lead to a cease-fire, which Pena insists must be implemented with the aid of United Nations troops.
The preliminary concessions on power-sharing would give UNITA officials significant executive posts at national, provincial, and local government level.
The civil war has raged since independence in 1975 with a brief 18-month respite after the signing of the Bicesse peace accords in May 1991, which led to the country's first democratic elections last September. Hostilities resumed after UNITA rejected its defeat in the elections.
UNITAofficials indicated that they would await the outcome of the peace talks before resuming a military offensive against four key provincial capitals - Kuito, Menongue, Luena, and Malange. UNITA's geographic hold
Although UNITA won only 33 percent of the vote, it now controls more than 70 percent of the countryside, including the diamond fields in the northeast and four of the 17 provincial capitals. The MPLA controls Luanda, the coast, and the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda in the north.
Heavy fighting has been raging around Kuito - and at least three other provincial capitals - since January. This city is now divided into two sections - one controlled by UNITA and the other by forces loyal to the MPLA.
[The UNITA radio report said that in the latest fighting, six government Sukhoi Su-23 jets bombed densely populated areas of Kuito April 20, causing heavy loss of life.]
It was the battle for Huambo, however, that has emerged as the decisive moment for UNITA in the 18-year civil war.
"In UNITA's battle for survival, Huambo was a matter of destiny," UNITA Information Secretary Jorge Valentim told the Monitor during the first visit to the devastated city by a United States newspaper. "It was all or nothing."
Five weeks after its military victory in Huambo, UNITA's guerrilla leaders are certain about its symbolic significance. But they are uncertain how to administer the city and transform the military victory into a political gain in their quest for semi-autonomy over the 70 percent or so of rural Angola that they control.
In satellite towns of Huambo, such as Caala about 18 miles to the south, UNITA is already the only administrative authority and displays the mentality of a one-party state. It has its own police and army, has begun collecting taxes, and presides over an arbitrary form of justice.
UNITA officials insist that any administrative shortcomings are only temporary.
"People must be able to feel secure," said UNITA Washington representative Jado Muekalia in a reference to the wide perception by UNITA supporters that the MPLA is waging an ethnic war against the Ovimbundu, the country's largest tribe making up about 30 percent of Angola's 10 million people.
Victory in Huambo came after a 55-day air and ground battle with MPLA forces, which the Roman Catholic Church in the city described as "one of the bloodiest battles in African history." Western diplomats and aid workers say about 15,000 people died - at least 5,000 of them civilians. Life resumes in Huambo
Although the downtown area is deserted, there are pockets of activity in the neighborhoods. And life continues much as usual in the densely populated townships and semi-rural settlements that account for much of Huambo's estimated population of 400,000.
Many residents who took refuge in surrounding villages are returning to the city, and marketplaces have returned to normal. But employees and sympathizers of the ruling MPLA, who did not flee the city, maintain a low profile - particularly those of Portuguese descent.
UNITA officials are convinced that the victory for Huambo marks a watershed in their 30-year-old struggle. "This was a new kind of war," Mr. Valentim says. "We are no longer a guerrilla army. It is conventional now. From now on, the towns and cities are our battlefields. We will defend them to the death."