07 October 1999
Angola Mired in Military Standoff, Human Rights Expert Says
(Citizens are losers, Alex Vines tells NDI) (750)
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Department of State Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The failure of the Angolan government's third major
offensive this year against the rebel movement UNITA (National Union
for the Total Independence of Angola) has resulted in a military
stalemate with "dreadful" human rights ramifications for the nation's
war-weary people, says Alex Vines of Human Rights Watch/Africa.
Vines, whose report "Angola Unravels: The Rise and Fall of the Lusaka
Peace Process" was recently published by Human Rights Watch, told an
October 6 meeting sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (NDI)
that Angola's long civil war is now draining the very lifeblood of the
Vines said that in the most recent fighting, between 1.7 million and
two million people have been displaced and the Angolan government has
begun to use land mines again in violation of the Ottawa agreement
banning their use. When he recently asked a top Angolan official why
the government was once again using the devices -- which have crippled
thousands of innocent non-combatants -- he was told that "it is war,
and a government has every right to defend itself."
A cease-fire and peace agreement brokered in Lusaka also has proved
ineffectual, and while UNITA forces indulge in "the indiscriminate
shelling of cities" held by the government, the government itself has
"indiscriminately bombed areas held by UNITA," he added. Rumors that
the government is employing cluster bombs and powerful air-fuel bombs,
he said, also "need examining."
The most recent offensive launched by the army of Angolan President
Jose Eduardo dos Santos was basically "a face-saver" after the last
two [military] disasters, Vines explained. Small gains were made by
government forces, he said, but UNITA remains alive, well armed, and
At the same time, Vines said that UNITA's "military capacity has been
exaggerated." He characterized UNITA as basically a mixed guerrilla
force with some armor, as many as four Russian T-74 tanks, and heavy
artillery. But the rebels are short on fuel, he explained, which
prevents them from capitalizing on military victories.
In acknowledging the government's history of failed military campaigns
against the rebels, Vines said a top Angolan official recently told
him that the main aim now is "to weaken UNITA's military capacity."
Yet the Angolan army has had trouble even with that limited goal
because of government disorganization, Vines said.
The U.S. government, along with the United Nations, has condemned the
continued use of military force by UNITA, charging that the political
intransigence of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, is a key block to reaching
a sustainable peace agreement. Vines said senior Angolan government
officials have told him they view Savimbi as "a war criminal" --
though they are willing to negotiate with other UNITA officials.
Nonetheless, Vines said, he believes Savimbi is "a significant part of
a potential solution" to the conflict in Angola, which has raged on
and off since the nation attained independence from Portugal in 1975.
Noting that he was in Washington to attend a State
Department-sponsored meeting on diamond sales and the small arms trade
in Africa, Vines told the NDI meeting that an embargo on buying
diamonds from UNITA imposed last year by the United Nations is a good
idea but should have been done earlier. Savimbi has funded his
movement with sales that amounted to as much as $400 million a year in
the early 1990s, Vines added, but because the diamond fields have been
exhausted, sales should only reach $150 million to $200 million this
There have been some positive developments on the human rights front,
Vines said, noting that on the government side harassment of the media
still continues, but "the press is much more open and robust than
before." He mentioned that the Catholic Church has begun to take a
greater interest in reporting on the affairs of the nation and that
"its radio station has done some excellent reporting" on the war and
its effects on the civilian population.
Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester
Crocker recently summed up the Angolan stalemate in a New York Times
article he wrote in August entitled "Death Is the Winner in Africa's
Wars." In the article, Crocker said: "Opportunists with a Leninist
sense of power are in charge on both sides in Angola. Neither places a
high priority on peace or people. Barring victory, both prefer war
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