Angolan War Intensifies - Backed by Whom?

7 MINS READMay 13, 1999 | 05:00 GMT

After the Angolan government's attempt last December to finally eradicate the rebel UNITA army went horribly awry, UNITA this month launched its own, somewhat more effective offensive. In the absence of foreign intervention, it is likely that UNITA's campaign would eventually peter out as well. Yet as foreign powers publicly stand back and condemn UNITA and the Angolan conflict in general, there is reason to believe that, behind the scenes, they are playing an active role in the battle — one not necessarily in line with their declarations.


Angola's UNITA rebels, who launched a broad offensive on May 4, claimed on May 12 that they were closing in on the capital, Luanda, and key oil installations at Soyo to the north — claims apparently validated by flows of refugees from the areas in question. Earlier this month UNITA cut power to the capital. UNITA Secretary General Paulo Lukamba Gato claimed that the rebels now hold some 70 percent of the country, and control the entire border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, as well as three quarters of the border with Namibia. UNITA has called the 1994 Lusaka Protocol, which was to have ended Angola's civil war, effectively dead, and has vowed to carry on the fight until Luanda returns to the negotiating table. The Angolan government steadfastly refuses to negotiate with the rebels.

The UNITA offensive follows a failed Angolan Army (FAA) campaign launched last December in hopes of capturing the two main UNITA strongholds of Bailundo and Andulo and of eradicating the rebel army. UNITA decisively repelled four offensives against the towns, reportedly capturing large amounts of FAA heavy equipment, small arms, and ammunition in the process. Since then, the FAA has acknowledged the balance of forces stands in UNITA's favor, and government forces have been limited to "active defense." Angola has been forced to reinstate forced conscription and has withdrawn forces from Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Government of the Congo (DRC), where they were backing both governments against rebels allied with UNITA.

The FAA claims it is preparing for a dry season offensive later this month, where it can put its combined arms tactics to good use against the rebels. But reports indicate that UNITA now has a substantial number of surface to air missiles, which it has already successfully used several times, and this should blunt the government's air campaign. Additionally, UNITA has obtained a large number of tanks and armored fighting vehicles and, with the help of South African mercenary instructors, has reportedly developed some prowess in conventional maneuver warfare. UNITA has also acquired a substantial air force of its own, including MiG-23 fighter bombers and Mi-24 attack helicopters, reportedly from Ukraine through a European intermediary. The aircraft reportedly come with Ukrainian mercenary pilots.

In what is effectively the sum total of international action on the war in Angola, the UN Security Council on May 7 called for tightened sanctions on UNITA and created two special commissions to study the war, particularly sanctions-busting by UNITA. The UN, the OAU, and other international organizations have blamed UNITA for undermining the Lusaka Protocol and starting and perpetuating the current conflict. However, the UN pulled its peacekeeping troops out of the country, and the regional South African Development Community (SADC) has refrained from intervening, due apparently to divisions over which side to support. Notably, the Angolan conflict appears to have deepened the rift between SADC members Zimbabwe — which openly supports Luanda as well as the DRC government in that country's conflict, and South Africa — which appears to support UNITA and the DRC rebel forces, though far less openly.

The civil war between UNITA and Angola's ruling MPLA began shortly after the country was granted its independence by Portugal in 1975. During the Cold War, the U.S. and China supported UNITA, while the Soviet Union and Cuba backed the MPLA. Since the end of the Cold War, the war and its sponsorship has evolved significantly. This has been accelerated and exacerbated as the conflicts in Angola and the DRC have become tightly intertwined, and have linked to conflicts across the continent.

As it currently stands, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the DRC signed a mutual defense pact on April 8. Angola also signed a border security pact with Congo Brazzaville on May 12. Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have all sent forces to help the Kabila regime in the DRC, and those forces have reportedly battled UNITA forces on both sides of the border. Kabila also reportedly receives support from Sudan, Libya, Chad, China, and France. Cuban mercenary instructors have reportedly been spotted with FAA troops in Angola, and Libyan military pilots have reportedly been seen at Luanda's airport. The Russian connection to Luanda is reported to hold firm as well, with Russian mercenary pilots allegedly comprising some of the Angolan air force.

Zambia almost certainly supports UNITA, at least as a logistical rear area and supply conduit. Togo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Cote d'Ivoire also reportedly support UNITA. This is not a particularly impressive sponsor list, but the list is longer. UNITA cooperates with the DRC rebel forces, which are in turn backed by Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. These, in turn receive support from the United States and South Africa. UNITA's Ukrainian aircraft were reportedly acquired with Western European assistance, and arrived by way of Uganda and a rebel held airfield in the DRC. The transshipment of arms through Uganda was unlikely to occur without U.S. knowledge and at least tacit approval, suggesting that UNITA's promises not to attack foreign economic interests in Angola are believable. UNITA also reportedly receives support from Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

There are additional interesting hints of UNITA's European connections. For instance, the rebels are supposedly nearing Soyo, where the Belgian oil company Fina Angola has operations, yet some sources report that Belgium helped to facilitate rearming the rebels. UNITA General Secretary Paulo Lukamba Gato on May 12 insisted that UNITA would respect foreign oil interests, claiming "I can attack a place without destroying foreign companies' infrastructure." UNITA has recently issued repeated assurances that it will protect foreign interests in Angola. UNITA claims it understands that Angola needs foreign expertise and investment and that any Angolan government must enter into mutually beneficial contracts with foreign companies. Unconfirmed reports suggest UNITA may have purchased part of its air force with promises of oil field concessions. Besides oil, UNITA controlled diamond mines in Angola are highly attractive to European and South African companies, as are other mines in neighboring UNITA ally Zambia and rebel controlled regions of the DRC.

UNITA's European and South African connections are further confirmed by its weaponry. While much of UNITA's arms are ubiquitous Soviet models, the rebels reportedly have French Crotale surface to air missiles, obtained either from Europe or from South Africa, which uses the system. UNITA also reportedly has Yugoslav Orkan multiple rocket launchers and South African G5 155mm artillery. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, some of UNITA's weapons, including South African arms and ammunition, arrived through a Mozambique port. This equipment was then flown on South African based aircraft into Angola, possibly by way of Zambia.

In short, while European countries and the United States have joined the United Nations in publicly condemning UNITA for starting and perpetuating the ongoing conflict in Angola, it is apparent that not all are acting in accordance with their declarations. The Central African wars that we have watched gradually and inseparably intertwine are showing ever increasing outside manipulation. The true test will be when outside manipulation forces direct outside participation. Has the revival of the Great Game in Central Asia found its match in a return to neo-colonial competition in Central Africa? It certainly looks that way.

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