TWO years after rebels rejected the outcome of democratic elections and reignited one of Africa's longest-running civil war, Angola stands at the door of peace.
Diplomats tracking the country react cautiously to news of a new accord, citing a litany of failed agreements since war first broke out upon independence from Portugal in 1975.
But this time may be different.
In the first major breakthrough in 11 months of often-acrimonious talks in Lusaka, Zambia, UN chief mediator Alioune Blondin Beye announced earlier this week that the two sides were close to signing a protocol opening the way for reconciliation through power-sharing and a cease-fire overseen by UN peacekeepers.
Both sides seem exhausted from military stalemate. The rebels have lost almost all the international support that once sustained them.
``We can today say or declare that peace in Angola is within our reach and believe this time it will be lasting because it is based on a solid foundation and all sides are happy,'' said Mr. Beye, offering few details of the accord. ``There are no longer substantial issues to be settled. The time for initialing the agreement is before us. I can't say the exact date but it is a matter of days and not weeks.''
His optimism was echoed by negotiators of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) who normally resort to propaganda wars when advances are made in talks.
``We are happy and fully confident that this peace agreement will hold,'' UNITA's information director, Jorge Valentim, told reporters. ``It seems this time an agreement is going to be signed after many difficult obstacles,'' said government spokesman Gen. Higino Carneiro.
Long a theater of cold-war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, Angola achieved a cease-fire through UN-sponsored peace accords in 1991. But fighting resumed with unprecedented ferocity in late 1992 when UNITA rejected its defeat in the country's first democratic elections.
Since then, UNITA at its height seized 70 percent of the country, tens of thousands have died from famine or war, and one-third of the 10 million population has been displaced. The conflict has increasingly assumed an ethnic rather than ideological dimension, and distrust runs deep.
Western diplomats in Luanda, the capital, envisaged problems in implementing a cease-fire in a country whose transport and communications infrastructure is devastated. They questioned whether international interest, which shrunk as the cold war ebbed, would be strong enough to divert peacekeeping resources away from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and the Middle East.
And they note UNITA chief Jonas Savimbi's track record in breaking promises. Observers are skeptical that he is truly willing to accept a position of vice president as outlined in the Lusaka protocol. ``UNITA is always trying to seek delays,'' one diplomat says. ``Neither side may be ready to put down its weapons. There is quite a lot of distrust.''
In favor of success, however, are firmer conditions than in prior accords, such as powersharing, which would give some key ministries and governorships to UNITA. The UN appears to be determined not to repeat its mistake of 1991, when it posted several hundred observers with a limited mandate and pushed through elections before demobilization was complete. This time it would send in an unspecified number of blue helmets.
International pressure has grown on Mr. Savimbi, who lost vital backing when South Africa and Washington established diplomatic relations with his MPLA foes earlier this year.
Savimbi may be losing support at home, too. Aid workers who visited Huambo, a UNITA stronghold, report widespread disease, hunger, and shortages of key supplies. Long rebel sieges of government-held cities have alienated many of Savimbi's supporters from his Ovimbundu ethnic group.
Noting peaceful trends in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, Beye said: ``We hope that Angola will not be absent from this page of history. There is no need for Angola to stand on the sidelines and both delegations at these negotiations understood that.''