The unexplained shooting down of two United Nations humanitarian aid planes amid renewed fighting in Angola between the government and armed factions of the Unita rebels has thrust the country into a new round of conflict that has never completely stopped since it started more than two decades ago.
Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), a reluctant signatory to the now floundering 1994 Lusaka Peace Process, is widely accused of escalating the violence led by long-time leader Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi has refused personally to participate in Angola's governance despite repeated promises to adhere to the Lusaka Accords which, among other things, obligates Unita to stop fighting, demobilize its fighters and hand over areas it controlled to the elected government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
The shooting down of the UN planes near the central city of Huambo and the rearming of the military wing of Unita could well prompt the withdrawal of the UN monitoring force (MONUA), at a time when peace-making is essential in the oil- and diamond-rich but war-weary country.
The aircraft, both Hercules C-130 cargo planes, were carrying UN personnel. The first flight carrying 14 people was shot down on 26 December and the second, with eight aboard, on 2 January. There were no apparent survivors although Unita has made it difficult for investigators to reach the wreckage, which crashed in territory held by the so-called rebel group.
Fierce fighting has been concentrated around Huambo, forcing thousands of already displaced Angolans to flee once again for safety from a city almost flattened by years of fighting.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed outrage at the deliberate attacks on neutral aircraft and has called on both the government and Unita, each which blames the other, for the disasters to agree on a cease-fire to allow UN investigations.
The "troika" of countries set up to monitor the Lusaka agreement - Russia, Portugal and the U.S. - also strongly condemned the resumption of fighting and attacks on UN aircraft.
The head of the UN mission in Angola, Issa Diallo, says the crash site of the first plane was in an area government forces had recently taken from Unita, while the other "is in a Unita held area."
Although the government had expressed its willingness to co-operate in the search for the wreckage and possible survivors from the start, Unita dragged its feet and is alleged to have removed victims from the wreckage before UN investigators could examine the sites.
Unita only agreed to cooperate after Annan's stern warning, backed up by the Security Council.
UN Under-Secretary General for Security Affairs Benon Sevan, who visited Angola after the crash and held talks with President dos Santos, believes there might have been survivors from the second aircraft.
"Those who are probably holding our men should abstain from harming them because this is purely a humanitarian issue, and I do not want any of the two sides to use MONUA personnel to gain political dividends," Sevan said.
Fearing for the safety of its personnel, MONUA has announced its intention to withdraw from the eight provincial capitals to Luanda. However, Angola Peace Monitor says the move might send wrong signals to the international community about UN commitment to bringing peace in Angola.
"The implication of this is that it would signal the withdrawal of the UN from Angola. This would highlight the lack of political will by the members of the Security Council to back a tougher UN stance and military presence in Angola," says the magazine.
Desperate civilians in the countryside, the majority of whom have never known peace, have started flocking into towns, where it is a little safer. Angola Peace Monitor says, "several hundred thousand people have fled their homes since the beginning of December 1998 to the town of Kuito in Bie province in the face of an all-out assault by the rebel movement."
The report says that some 100 civilians were killed in mid-December, in an attack by Unita on a disused railway station in Kunje, near Kuito.
"Men, women and children are again forced to flee into the unknown, risk encountering landmines and possible attacks, in need of food and shelter - or they risk losing their lives if they stay in their villages and towns," says Diallo.
The UN Office of the Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Unit (UCAH) in Angola in its latest situation report, has said the number of people seeking shelter in Kuito had increased from 10,000 at the beginning of December to 55,000 by mid-January this year.
In Huambo, Angola's second largest city, there were 7,000 internally displaced people at the beginning of December, but the number has risen to 80,000, says the report.
A UN spokesperson in New York, Fred Eckhard says the UN is currently assisting over a million war victims, and "providing survival rations to 387,000 internally displaced persons fleeing the conflict." The world body has been assisting Angola since the 1980s.
After nearly 30 years of fighting, peace seems as elusive as ever in Angola, and there are no signs that the desperate economic plight of the country's citizens will improve. The situation would be further worsened by the fact that humanitarian aid agencies have threatened to scale down their operations in the war-torn southern African country.
Africa Analysis says Unita has reverted to its 1980s strategy of attacking mines, gem seizures and taking mineworkers hostage. Ashton Mining, an Australian mining company said four of its workers were killed on the Caungo mine recently.
"They were killed in an ambush on their vehicle by an armed band believed to be Unita rebels while travelling from Tazua mining area to the project's operational headquarters at Luzamba in Lunda Norte Province," said a statement from the mine authorities.
Despite widespread condemnation of Savimbi for not complying with the Lusaka Peace Accord by international bodies, including the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), there has been little action to accompany such statements.
A statement from the SADC summit held in Mauritius in September last year strongly condemned Unita actions calling Savimbi a "war criminal" objectively incapable of leading his party on the road to peace. Unita is itself divided between hawks supporting Savimbi and his bush fighters and doves who participate in the Luanda government and have openly rejected Savimbi's war-lord stance.
However, SADC has not been asked to send troops to Angola as it did in Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year to support legitimate governments under attack from rebels and outside interests.
This year's SADC Annual Consultative Conference scheduled for February in Lusaka is expected to deliberate on the conflict in Angola and the DRC, even though the theme of the conference is about information technology - "SADC in the next Millennium: The Challenges and Opportunities of Information Technology."
Analysts say that with the Angolan government troops assisting the allied forces in the DRC, Unita is using the opportunity to regain its former diamond-rich strongholds which were in government hands. Angola and other SADC allies, Namibia and Zimbabwe, have received unconfirmed reports that Unita troops are fighting alongside rebels in the DRC hoping to reactivate their supply routes formerly held under the late Mobutu Sese Seko when DRC was known as Zaire.
Reports say that sanctions imposed on Unita in 1997 by the UN have not been effectively enforced by a number of countries and some Unita representatives remain in place in Europe and Africa, allowing Unita to rearm and resume its battle for power, despite the havoc created for millions of innocent civilians.
A British-based environmental group, Global Witness, says international diamond traders are fuelling the fighting in Angola by continuing to purchase, in violation of all aspects of international law and practice, the high quality gems turning Unita from an opposition party to a criminal organization.
Global Witness says the diamond trade continues despite UN sanctions imposed on Unita in 1997 because of its failure to adhere to the 1994 Lusaka Peace Accord.
"Unita has been relying on diamond revenue through this whole decade to not just fund their war but also to help undermine the peace process," says Charmaine Guise, a researcher who compiled the Global Witness report.
The continued fighting by Unita has prevented the government from fully exploiting the country's rich natural resources. Business in Africa magazine says the diamonds are being smuggled from Angola via the DRC to Europe and Israel to finance the resumption of the war.
After losing the 1992 elections to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Savimbi led the rebels back to war. More than 500,000 Angolans died before both sides signed the Lusaka Accord in 1994 which Savimbi's Unita never fully accepted or adhered to.
Although the Lusaka Accord exists on paper, the latest wave of Unita-sponsored violence signals another phase of military strife that might turn out to be more damaging than before 1994. (SARDC)