Once a Cold-War Conflict, Angola Takes Symbolic Steps to Put Rebels in Office

Torn between giddy excitement and years of honed discipline, a mass of Angolans vie to snatch a glimpse of visiting dignitaries. In front of them, a choir of young men and women harmonize. And above them all flies the red, green, and black flag of the former rebel movement, UNITA.

More than 5,000 people have come to this tiny hamlet - amid the rolling green hills of Angola's central highlands - to witness the demobilization of the first of some 40,000 adult soldiers belonging to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

The country's long and stumbling road to peace has been rife with delays - demobilization should have been completed months ago - but the April 12 ceremony capped a week-long string of accomplishments for the three-year-long peace process.

On April 8, the country's National People's Assembly voted to approve the special status of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, long a major obstacle in the peace talks and a former anticommunist ally of the United States. Mr. Savimbi will be the official leader of his party and be given a number of benefits, including a salary.

The following day 60 UNITA deputies finally took their seats in the National Assembly after being elected in failed UN-sponsored elections in 1992. Then, Savimbi refused to accept the poll results and took the country back to war.

But the swearing-in cleared the way for the establishment of a government of national unity on Friday.

The inauguration of the new government, which included UNITA members as ministers, was a key provision in a peace treaty signed by the two sides in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, in 1994, and was a major goal of the 6,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission here.

UNITA and the government, once backed by Cuban troops and the Soviets, plunged the country into civil war after its 1975 independence from Portugal. The two sides stopped fighting in 1992 for the elections but soon after went back to war. It was only in 1994 that the two sides signed a peace agreement. Since the Lusaka accords were signed, the UN has used the presence of its peace keeping mission to nudge the government and UNITA toward the implementation of the accords.

Angola has had a very good week, but there has been no dancing in the streets because lasting peace is still an uncertainty. Officials from both sides readily admit that a plethora of problems still linger. Diplomats and officials close to the peace process say UNITA still maintains the bulk of its military might, having turned over to the UN piles of unserviceable weapons. Aid workers who run the UN-sponsored UNITA demobilization camps say they are filled mostly with farmers forced by UNITA into meeting UN demobilization targets and not real soldiers.

Officials close to the peace process here also point to Savimbi's failure to take part in Friday's swearing-in ceremonies as sign of bad things to come. "Make no mistake about it," one diplomat commented, "UNITA is a one-man show. If Savimbi does not get what he wants, if things are not going his way, then he will stop the whole process."

Although Savimbi made it clear more than two weeks ago that he would not leave his highland headquarters of Bailundo to come to the capital, Luanda, for the festivities, his absence here clearly disappointed some of the visiting heads of state.

"I think he should have come here," said South Africa's President Nelson Mandela.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos said nothing of Savimbi's absence during his speech Friday. Diplomats here say the president will be little affected by the new power-sharing arrangement.

But some Angolans did allow themselves a few days to bask in all the attention that 12 African heads of state brought to the country this week. For one man, at least the long troubles of Angola were finally left behind. "I just want to go home now," said Abel Filipe, the first adult UNITA soldier demobilized. Mr. Filipe took his shiny new demobilization card and with a smile said he wanted to be a carpenter.

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