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Sunday, 31 March, 2002, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Angola: One step from peace
Angolan soldiers
The integration of Unita into the army is a key test
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By the BBC's Justin Pearce
In Luanda

With the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) and military officers from the Unita rebels, Angola is now only one step away from officially ending the war.

Angolan refugee children at transit centre
Millions have been displaced by the years of fighting
The civil war has raged since independence in November 1975, but conflict actually dates back to the early 1960s, when the struggle for independence from Portugal began.

Unita's Secretary General, Paulo Lukamba "Gato," is expected to sign a final ceasefire agreement on Thursday, 4 April, with a representative of the Angolan Government - probably President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

The memorandum of understanding between the two armies is intended to resolve the military questions still outstanding, in order to allow the political leaders to sign a ceasefire.

Demobilisation plan

Most importantly, it involves a plan to demobilise 50,000 Unita soldiers - about 23,000 officers and 27,000 ordinary soldiers - in preparation for their integration into the FAA.

Unita's military officers say they are in contact with commanders based throughout Angola, and the FAA also says that its commanders in the various operational areas have made contact with their Unita counterparts.

The absence of political leader Gato caused concern
It nevertheless remains to be seen whether any amount of goodwill on the part of the military leadership can persuade so many soldiers, involved in such a widely-scattered guerrilla campaign, to lay down their arms.

As sanctions and the FAA's military campaign have undermined Unita over the last few years, so more and more of its soldiers have operated almost autonomously, living off looting and pillaging. Often they are indistinguishable from the bandit groups who pose a further threat to Angola's security.

Where was Gato?

There were worries about the absence of General Gato from Saturday's signing.

Journalists in Luena were first told that the helicopter sent to fetch him could not land because of heavy rain.

Then when the helicopter arrived, it was carrying not Gato but the former Unita commander-in-chief General Samuel Chiwale, who said that Gato "had too much work" to allow him to attend.

But General Chiwale, who as a co-founder of Unita with Jonas Savimbi is a heavyweight figure in the movement, gave his assurances that General Gato would be present at the signing of the ceasefire in Luanda on Thursday.

Gato, as the political leader of Unita, was never intended to sign the purely military accord in Luena.

The business of war

Another question concerns the fact that the war has become big business. Officers on both sides of the conflict have used their positions of authority and military resources to further their own commercial interests.

"Are these people going to be willing to end a conflict if this cuts off their cash flow?" is the question some Angolans are asking.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos
The influence of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos was felt at the talks
There has been some criticism of the way the talks were conducted - particularly on the part of Unita's representatives in Europe, who said that the rebel officers at the talks had been captured by the FAA.

But Unita's information secretary, Marcial Dachala, insisted that he and his colleagues had been negotiating as free men.

"I think they [the representatives in Europe] were the victims of distance," Mr Dachala told the BBC. "We had communications difficulties, but above all, they were influenced by certain media. They are now completely in agreement with what we are doing."

Victor's justice?

Yet the huge mural portraits of Angola's founding president Agostinho Neto, and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, that watched over the talks in a government building in Luena were a graphic reminder of who was setting the terms for these negotiations.

Before Savimbi's death, there was talk that Unita might want to extract political concessions from the government in exchange for peace.

It's obvious from the spirit we've seen here and the way this evolving that this is something that comes from within the Angolans themselves

US Ambassador Christopher Dell
But the FAA's victories in the last few months have left Unita officers with little choice but to talk on the government's terms - that is, that talks must be directed towards the implementation of the 1994 Lusaka Protocol, which provided for the demobilisation of Unita.

Part of the criticism of the Lusaka process was that it came at a time when the warring parties were in no mood for reconciliation.

US ambassador Christopher Dell, part of the troika of observers of the Lusaka process, said that things were different this time.

"It's obvious from the spirit we've seen here and the way this evolving that this is something that comes from within the Angolans themselves," he told the BBC.

Significantly, the FAA was represented not by its commander in chief but by his deputy, General Geraldo Sachipengo Nunda. He was formerly a Unita officer close to General Abreu Muengo Ucuatchitembo "Kamorteiro", who represented Unita's army at the talks.

There is little doubt that the rapport between these two men helped make the agreement possible - and when they embraced at the end of the meeting, it was a sign that this time, things might work out.

See also:

31 Mar 02 | Africa
Angola moves closer to peace
27 Mar 02 | Africa
Angola rebels back truce talks
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