SOUTH Africa is likely to follow the United States in granting diplomatic recognition to Angola, according to a South African official.
For Jonas Savimbi and his rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the move will mean almost total diplomatic isolation from the two countries that sustained him during 17 years of war against the formerly Marxist regime of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
"US and South African recognition will close UNITA's diplomatic options, but it could escalate the military problem in the short-term," a Western diplomat says.
UNITA officials have used the US recognition of the Angolan government as justification for refusing to sign a peace plan after six weeks of talks in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and diplomats now worry that the war could escalate.
"I am afraid that the war is going to go on and probably intensify," said United Nations special envoy Margaret Anstee, who chaired the talks in Abidjan.
President Clinton announced recognition of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) on May 19 after meeting with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The South African official says Pretoria is likely to announce formal recognition within a few weeks. The issue will be on the agenda at talks between South African Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha and his Angolan counterpart, Venancio de Moura, in Windhoek, Namibia, on June 4.
Chester Crocker, a former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs who is on a private visit to South Africa, told the Monitor that there was a case to be made "for getting the process of recognition behind us.
"But I hope this will not be read as a reduction of pressure on the MPLA or a slamming of the door on Jonas Savimbi," he said. If recognition was read by either party as a taking of sides, it would complicate the peace process.
Fifteen years of cold-war hostilities between the Angolan proxies of the US and the former Soviet Union ended with the signing of a peace accord in Bicesse, Portugal, in May 1991. The pact led to Angola's first democratic elections last September.
UNITA rejected the MPLA victory at the polls, returned to the bush, and has gained control of about 70 percent of the countryside since then through fighting. The government still holds most of the major towns and cities.
South Africa withdrew its diplomatic mission in Luanda for security reasons after violence erupted in the capital last October. Mr. Botha was declared persona non grata by the Angolan government in November after his attempts to mediate the post-ballot impasse failed.
The South African mission quietly returned to Luanda two weeks ago, and Pretoria said it would ensure that supplies do not reach UNITA through South Africa. For its part, the MPLA granted oil concessions to the South African oil firm Engen.
Diplomats hope the "get-tough" policy will persuade UNITA to accept a detailed peace proposal brokered during the past six weeks. But the Abidjan talks were suspended May 21 after UNITA refused to sign the plan, which would require the rebels to withdraw their forces from urban areas they control.
UNITA chief negotiator Jorge Valentim said after the talks that his delegation could return to Abidjan for a second round of negotiations in two to three weeks. "But UNITA cannot and will never be able to leave the cities and villages it conquered," he said.
MPLA Gen. Higino Carneiro said the government has demanded that UNITA troops at least be confined to barracks. "If UNITA thinks we can meet again in two weeks, we are prepared to think about it," he said.
US officials from the Bush administration, who are now being replaced, have made a last-ditch effort to bring UNITA into a settlement. "We've done as much as we can to bring UNITA along but it is now clear they are not coming along," a Western diplomat close to the talks told the Monitor. "Our patience has run out."
Speaking with the Monitor in Huambo April 11, Mr. Savimbi, the UNITA leader, said US recognition of the MPLA would not make a fundamental difference in his relations with the US. Diplomats regard this as bravado.