UNITA secretary for foreign affairs Alcides Sakala told IRIN that five officials of the movement were attacked on Monday by armed youths wearing T-shirts with the ruling MPLA party slogan. The delegation was in the town of Londuimbali in the central Huambo Province.
"The men went to Huambo Province to establish infrastructure for the party. These gentlemen were to be sworn in as official delegates of UNITA. All of them were attacked with machetes and sticks and told they could not continue with their work," Sakala said.
Following the signing of a truce between the two warring parties in April last year, and after UNITA had met conditions under the 1994 Lusaka Protocol, the government authorised the former rebel group to take up political activity across the country.
But in recent weeks UNITA party officials have faced harassment and intimidation as they tried to establish a presence in Huambo Province, Sakala alleged.
"This is not the first incident. In the towns of Bela Vista and Villa Nova we have encountered strong opposition which has prevented us from going about our work. This is very negative for the reconciliation process. This kind of tension could mean that [former] soldiers returning to their homes could face attacks. We believe the government must take full responsibility for these incidents and make sure we can freely organise among our supporters," said Sakala.
Huambo saw much of the brunt of the fighting during the war which claimed up to a million lives and displaced millions more.
Sakala acknowledged that the civil war had produced distrust between the rebel group and local populations.
"In some parts of the country we experience a lot more tension from the local authorities. And yes, there is a lot of work to be done on UNITA's behalf to change these perceptions of us as rebels. But this is now a different context and we need to entrench democracy," he said.
Observers said further evidence of harassment of opposition parties could undermine multiparty politics in the country.
"UNITA will face more problems, and violent ones, on the course of re-establishing its offices throughout the country. It will be a way to reduce, to a minimum possible, its power base, which is still very strong, especially in the south of the country," director of the human rights watchdog Open Society Angola, Rafael Marques, said.
UNITA has pointed out that the establishment of the movement as a national political party was key to its restructuring and a priority before legislative elections tentatively scheduled for sometime between 2004-2006.
"Although the incidents are part and parcel of the transition happening in Angola, it is worrying as it questions the role of the government as a partner in reconciliation. The government is for all Angolans including UNITA officials and it must be seen as such. It is the responsibility of the government to protect all its citizens, not just MPLA supporters," a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, Joao Porto, told IRIN.
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