African wars spread with no peace in sight

Long rebellions entangle allied governments, wary regional neighbors

January 08, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The death toll in Namibia is rising as Angola's civil war spills across its southern border, resulting in killings, kidnappings and other violence on Namibian soil.

This week, three French tourists and seven Angolan rebels were shot and killed in northeastern Namibia, near the Angolan border. On Jan. 1, 20 Namibian villagers in the region were reportedly abducted from their homes.

Last month, Angolan rebels attacked a Namibian police camp with mortars and grenades, killing one officer and wounding three others.

The clashes, which the Namibian government has blamed on Angolan rebels, follows the government's decision last month to allow Angola to use Namibia as a staging ground for troops in their 26-year war against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA.

UNITA officials promptly vowed to retaliate against Namibia. The resulting clashes between the rebels and soldiers from Angola and Namibia have so destabilized their bordering territory that the U.S. Embassy in Namibia has warned tourists against travel in that region.

The expansion of the Angolan conflict beyond its borders offers another example of how the bitter conflicts of central Africa continue to ensnare peripheral countries.

Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe are deeply involved in the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they have provided armed support to President Laurent Kabila in his struggle against rebels.

And diplomats and government officials in South Africa, who have unsuccessfully lobbied for peace in Congo, are watching the widening conflict in Angola with growing uneasiness. They are urging the Angolans to negotiate a settlement that might bring stability to the region.

But Angolan and Namibian officials have dismissed the idea of withdrawing from the conflict. The Angolan army has made significant gains against UNITA in recent months and seems determined to crush the rebels once and for all.

"We are going to give Angola whatever assistance they want," said Maj. Gen. Martin Shalli, chief of staff of the Namibian Defense Force. "Angola's our ally, our friend. And we as a country have our own national interest and security interest. We cannot have this problem on our doorstep, in our backyard."

"We are determined to fight until all UNITA members are out of Namibia," Shalli told local reporters this week.

Military analysts warn that that will not be easy. Despite the Angolan government's gains, UNITA remains a force to be reckoned with, and many believe the violence is unlikely to stop soon.

"Namibia has been persuaded that UNITA is on its last legs, but we think UNITA still has sizable forces in the field," said Richard Cornwell, a South African analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. "They've gone back to their guerrilla mode, and they're the finest guerrilla army in Africa."

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