Rebel leader's death opens doors to peace in Angola

Friday's killing of Jonas Savimbi could herald an end to a 27-year civil war.

Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi - charismatic, elusive, and stubborn - was never one to compromise. The man who was often quoted as saying "either I succeed or I die violently," walked away from peace negotiations, broke cease-fires, and helped perpetuate a 27-year civil war that has left half a million civilians dead and 4 million homeless. On Friday, he was shot down during fighting with government forces.

Savimbi's death leaves the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) without a leader or clear successor, adequate funding, or a known plan. This leads many observers to express optimism for a breakthrough peace agreement.

"As soon as I heard the news, my reaction was that Savimbi's death permits peace to break out in Angola," says Robert Rotberg, director of the program in interstate conflict at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

Pik Botha, a former South African foreign minister who supported Savimbi under South Africa's apartheid regime, said he expected a rapid settlement and was hopeful the Luanda government would oblige.

"Depending on how the Angolan government now reacts, this is perhaps the best opportunity - certainly since 1992 - to achieve successful solutions to peace," he told Reuters. "I am encouraged by the first reactions of the government not wanting to pursue this in such a way that UNITA followers feel humiliated."

Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos is to meet US President George Bush later this month in Washington. Western diplomats say the US government and the international community are encouraging Luanda to draft an inclusive peace agreement, under the framework of the moribund 1994 Lusaka protocol.

The government on Friday appealed to UNITA fighters to "reintegrate themselves into Angolan society so as to contribute to the consolidation of democracy and reconciliation."

Dr. Rotberg predicts most of Savimbi's lieutenants will try to cut deals with the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

"A few will hold out for a while, but with Savimbi's death, nothing holds them or their soldiers together," he says. "Savimbi had the funds and was the patron and mastermind. Nobody else remaining in the UNITA movement can command the loyalties of what now remains of UNITA."

The son of a railway stationmaster who studied medicine in Lisbon, political science in Switzerland, and guerrilla warfare in China, Savimbi spoke three African and four European languages.

He formed UNITA in 1966, amassing some 60,000 troops to fight Portuguese colonial rule in Angola. At independence in 1975, the various revolutionary movements in Angola turned against one another, and UNITA spent the better part of the next three decades fighting the MPLA and its leader, President dos Santos.

For years, Savimbi was called a freedom fighter and feted by the West, who saw him as a stalwart against the Marxist-backed MPLA. He received millions of dollars in clandestine aid from the US and South Africa. But after the cold war, Savimbi lost his usefulness, and his former supporters began to view him as "undemocratic," a "spoiler" - even, as one diplomat put it, "a complete megalomaniac."

UN-negotiated peace talks led to the 1992 elections in Angola. UNITA lost, but claimed vote rigging, rejected the results, and retreated to the bush to continue fighting. Another peace deal, brokered in 1994, unraveled in 1998. Savimbi was blamed for these failures and grew isolated.

In recent years, a combination of successful government offensives and a massive international effort to clamp down on the "conflict diamond" trade - the illegal gem trade which has financed Savimbi's war - considerably slowed the rebels down.

Dos Santos boasted that the rebels were down to their last 6,000 fighters, and, in an interview with the Voice of America last March, Savimbi broke a long silence to call for peace talks. But the government said Savimbi was simply buying time to rearm.

Now, with Savimbi's death, there are still those who believe war will continue. One Western diplomat says that the likely power struggle to replace Savimbi could even breathe new energy into the movement.

Rui Oliveira, UNITA's spokesman, said the leadership would meet soon to decide what course it would take, but, he stressed, "I can say that UNITA's mission will continue."

Despite conflict-diamond embargo, UNITA has reportedly stockpiled billions of dollars worth of diamonds.

A recent UN report says illicit diamonds from Angola constitute 5 percent of the world's rough diamond trade, worth $420 million a year, and that UNITA is certainly wealthy enough to keep fighting.

"The Angolan government should not tell people that peace is near with the death of Savimbi," Afonso Dhlakama, the former leader of the rebel Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) said in an interview with AFP.

"Many believed RENAMO would disappear when we lost our leader in battle in 1979, but we became much stronger and better organized instead."

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