Angola: Heightened tension along Namibian border

News and Press Release
Originally published
JOHANNESBURG, 4 January (IRIN) - Western diplomats said they were becoming increasingly concerned at the situation along Angola's southern border with Namibia after hit-and-run attacks on Monday against humanitarian vehicles in Namibia's remote northeast Caprivi Strip.
According to official government radio reports, diplomats and rights activists, at least three French nationals were killed in an ambush along the new Trans-Caprivi highway some 40 km east of the Bagani checkpoint. In a separate attack around the same time on Monday afternoon, two vehicles reportedly carrying employees of a Danish-based NGO were also attacked, but no-one was reported killed or seriously injured.

In another attack near Bagani during the New Year weekend, 'The Namibian' newspaper reported that eight people were wounded, four of them seriously, when gunmen armed with grenades and assault rifles abducted 20 Namibians and forced them across the border. The newspaper said the attackers planted anti-personnel landmines as they withdrew.

Embassies checking

"We are still trying to check the reports to determine what happened yesterday," a Danish embassy official told IRIN on Tuesday. The French embassy in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, meanwhile, dispatched senior officials to the border town of Rundu where survivors of Monday's attack were hospitalised.

Government radio said two vehicles carrying French citizens had been attacked and stripped of all their possessions. It also said the survivors had been hospitalised in Rundu from where they would be transferred to Windhoek once their condition was more stable.

Diplomatic sources said the Angolan rebel movement UNITA had been blamed for the raids, while Reuters quoted the Namibian army chief of staff, Major-General Martin Shalli, as saying Monday's attack was "definitely a UNITA ambush."

Background to the fighting

Heavy fighting in the area increased in the past two weeks after Namibia agreed to let Angolan troops use its bases to sweep UNITA forces from their last southern strongholds. The rebel movement has responded by stepping up attacks in the area. Days before Christmas, UNITA reportedly mortared a Special Field Force police installation at Mbambi, near Divundu, some 250 km east of Rundu, killing one officer and injuring others. A few days later, Angolan government forces announced the capture of the key UNITA rebel base at Jamba in southeast Angola, following the sacking in October of the rebels' strongholds further north in the Angolan central highlands.

The area is home to some of Namibia's best game reserves and is very popular with foreign tourists. European Union (EU) embassies and the US government on Tuesday reiterated warnings that tourists should keep away from the area because of ambushes and reports of landmines being laid.

EU seeks meeting with government

EU diplomats said they were not satisfied with government reports that the situation was under control and said they would request further clarification from the foreign ministry.

"The tensions have sparked further threats from UNITA of hit-and-run attacks," an EU diplomat told IRIN. "These have taken the form of threatening letters and rumours that have been circulating, and they are impossible for us to verify."

He said EU ambassadors would also be meeting to discuss the situation later this week because they were concerned at the impact the fighting on the local population as well as dozens of international aid projects on the Namibian side of the border.

"We are concerned because the government keep telling us that the situation is under control, and then ambushes or atrocities are reported. It is very worrying indeed, especially when it comes to the humanitarian situation, and whether we advise international humanitarian staff to keep out for the timebeing or to exercise extreme caution. Hopefully, those on leave, will extend their leave for now," the diplomat added.

Human rights concerns

The Namibian Society for Human Rights (NSHR), which on Tuesday accused the government of handing over 41 male Angolan refugees to Angolan government forces, also reported the ambushes, which it condemned.

"The Namibian public and the international community at large are made by Namibian authorities to believe that the arrival of Angolan forces on Namibian soil would enhance human security and stability along the border," an NSHR statement said. "However, immediately after the arrival of such forces, incidents of growing human rights abuses, reminiscent of those common in Angola, have increased considerably as compared to the period prior to the arrival of such forces."


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