TO many people's surprise, perennial no-show Jonas Savimbi, Angola's rebel leader, finally showed up to meet with his foe, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, raising hopes that the country's long and brutal civil war might truly end.
So convinced was Mr. dos Santos that his rival would not appear, he delayed arriving until Mr. Savimbi came. But the United Nations, which had sponsored the meeting Saturday in Zambia's capital Lusaka, was determined it would take place and threatened to call off the planned deployment of 7,600 peacekeeping troops if it did not. Both men showed.
The handshake and embrace may have been just gestures, but the meeting -- the first in three years -- was seen as a major step forward for peace. It was aimed at consolidating peace accords signed last November.
Twenty years of war
Angola's civil war has killed at least 1 million people since independence from Portugal in 1975.
Previous handshakes and agreements led to nothing. But with Savimbi's guerrilla army in disarray, and his former military backers in South Africa gone, he's under pressure to keep this pact.
A new regional political order -- peaceful elections in various countries over the past year, including South Africa and Mozambique -- led to a new push by the UN to complete the final piece of the puzzle to stability in southern Africa and enhance its tarnished peacekeeping record.
''The Lusaka meeting was like a rubber stamp -- but it is the first promising sign we've had in years,'' says a Western diplomat who tracks Angolan affairs. ''It might actually work this time.''
He says the fact that Savimbi finally appeared in Lusaka was a sign he realized that his bid for ultimate power via the battlefield was fruitless. This time he acknowledged the government of Dos Santos -- something the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) chief has repeatedly refused to do since ending a 16-month truce and returning to arms after losing September 1992 elections.
''I have told the president he is president of my country,'' Savimbi said at a ceremony after their meeting. ''We had a discussion between brothers. I am going back completely comforted.''
Diplomats, while heartened, are not completely comforted, citing Savimbi's poor track record. He and Dos Santos agreed to meet again in Angola, but the date has not been disclosed. There was no public mention of demobilization of UNITA's estimated 40,000 guerrillas, Savimbi's possible role in a new national unity government, or holding other elections.
Diplomats say the UN, which brokered the first 1991 peace accords and now the Lusaka initiative, is eager to see this one work as it prepares to send peacekeepers to oversee a pact.
Savimbi has overseen one of Africa's most effective guerrilla movements since the 1960s when he launched his fight against Portuguese colonial rule. Independence in 1975 saw his rival Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) come to power with Cuban and Soviet backing. Savimbi's UNITA enlisted the help of the United States and South Africa, which saw Angola as a bulwark against the spread of socialism.
With the end of the cold war, the superpowers pushed their Angolan proxies to sign the 1991 accords -- but Savimbi cried fraud at the elections and the war kicked in again. But with foreign supply lines cut off, defections by hungry rebels, and the loss of captured territory -- including his own headquarters in the town of Huambo -- Savimbi apparently had to accept a peaceful solution, Angolan military sources says.
This has created a more promising scenario for peace than before. But the oil-rich country lies in shambles, and economists say it will take more than a decade to rebuild the infrastructure and restore investor confidence. Some 3 million people remain displaced and in threat of hunger. An estimated 9 to 20 million land mines scattered across the vast country inhibit agricultural self-sufficiency and claim lives and limbs.