THE enemies of National Union for the Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel leader Jonas Savimbi gathered last month around a television in a Luanda cafe, scrutinizing it for clues to the man who holds the key to war and peace in Angola.
Mr. Savimbi, prone to vanishing acts during his 30-year career as one of Africa's most resilient guerrilla leaders, had just come out of a three-month disappearance from the public eye for an interview in his central highland base of Bailundo.
Rumors had swirled around that Savimbi had been seriously wounded, sought treatment in Morocco, or even been killed when his army withdrew in disarray from his headquarters in Huambo.
But he was alive and well when the government supporters in Luanda watched the Portuguese TV interview. The normally burly, bombastic Savimbi was now thinner and more subdued. He sported civilian dress, but was not reassuring about adhering to peace accords signed in November to finally end 20 years of civil war.
Both Savimbi and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos had henchmen sign the accords, lending less weight to the document. Savimbi said he stayed away because of his fears for his safety.
``This agreement has not come off the rails. But it is in danger of coming off the rails,'' he said, later saying that he had been pressured into the fragile peace.
The Maoist Savimbi has run one of the best-disciplined guerrilla armies in Africa since launching his fight against Portuguese colonial rule in the 1960s. He continued to fight with United States' and South African support after the rival Soviet and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) seized power upon 1975 independence.
The end of the cold war spelled the end of foreign support and spawned a 1991 UN-supervised peace accord. But while the government demobilized, Savimbi secretly stockpiled weapons, and he cried fraud after losing September 1992 elections. He resumed his struggle for power with unprecedented ferocity, at one point expelling government authorities from more than 70 percent of national territory and besieging several cities.
Many diplomats believe Savimbi agreed to peace this time because he was weak militarily - his estimated 40,000 men outnumbered by the government's 100,000. UNITA's once-robust, well-armed army has been reduced to poorly fed youths. The government last year expelled UNITA from its headquarters and regained much lost ground. His lavish residences in Huambo, Cuito, and Luanda are now splintered shells.
UN mediators who saw Savimbi recently described a man obsessed with security, but refuted assertions by government officials that he had gone mad. ``Savimbi was in good health. He seemed lucid and his normal, charming self,'' said one source.
But many Angolans believe the man reverentially called ``the president'' by his followers may find it difficult to accept anything but that post. They fear he will renege on this accord like all others before.
``UNITA erred by trying to take cities in this latest war,'' said one Western military expert. ``It would not win if it continued to fight. But a continued guerrilla struggle would continue to make Angola ungovernable.''
Savimbi has become increasingly isolated internationally, especially with the rise of the post-apartheid government in Pretoria. His sense of betrayal by his erstwhile backers and anger over UN sanctions against his movement have made him hostile toward peace mediators.
At home his popularity may be waning too, diplomats say. Despite rhetoric about democracy with which he wooed the West for years, Savimbi is intolerant of dissent. Those in the movement who questioned his sole rule were tortured or killed, defectors said. In UNITA-held areas, civilians lacked free movement.
``He is a classic dictator,'' said a senior UNITA offical who defected after Savimbi resumed the war. ``UNITA is Savimbi.''
The hard-line approach has cost Savimbi much backing among the Ovimbundu, the country's largest ethnic group, which makes up his greatest support base in the strategic central highlands. They voted overwhelmingly for Savimbi in the 1992 elections, but suffered the greatest when he resumed war.
UNITA's 55-day siege of Huambo in 1993 killed more than 10,000 people, and residents described its subsequent 18-month occupation as a reign of terror.
The group's nine-month siege of Cuito took an estimated 30,000 lives and reduced the city to Dresden-like ruins. ``Savimbi martyred his own people,'' said a Cuito resident, Justino, standing by the rubble that once was his home.