By Manoah Esipisu
LUSAKA, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Thousands of Angolan refugees are pouring into Zambia as the Angolan war escalates, the United Nations refugee agency said on Thursday, while diplomats said some UNITA rebels were amongst those crossing the border.
In the last 12 days, 7,547 refugees had entered the Zambian border districts of Sinjembela and Imusho, bringing the total arrivals since October to 20,926, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
Zambian authorities have put the figure of Angolan arrivals since January 1 as high as 15,000. There are more than 200,000 refugees in Zambia, of whom at least 160,000 are Angolans.
"More refugees are reported to be on their way," the UNHCR said in a statement, adding that a majority of the refugees were women and children.
Senior diplomatic sources told Reuters fighters from UNITA were among those crossing into Zambia.
"Our understanding is that Angola has asked Zambia for permission to follow the UNITA people into Zambia, as they have done with Namibia. Zambia, conscious of developments in Namibia, has declined," said a diplomat closely following the Angola war.
"The Zambians are saying: not here, we shall not allow you in. If UNITA enter Zambia, they come as refugees, they will be disarmed and kept in refugee camps, end of case."
"The Zambians raise one question:
If they are not carrying guns, how would anyone know whether or not they
are UNITA? If they have guns, Zambians disarm them. There is no question
of pursuing them into another country," said another diplomat.
There was no formal Zambian reaction to the suggestion that UNITA rebels were crossing the border. But Zambia said last week it did not back UNITA and denied reinforcing troops along its border to stop Angola pursuing UNITA.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Machungwa said that Zambia had beefed up its military presence for internal stability.
The UNHCR said 60 refugees among those who arrived at the Kalabo border post were ethnic Umbundu, the tribe of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi. They were isolated from other refugees for their own security, officials said.
UNITA REBELS ON THE RUN
UNITA rebels have been on the run since government forces gained the upper hand in the civil war in October last year.
Last month Namibia decided to allow Angola to use its territory to launch attacks against the rebels, who maintain a key base deep in southeast Angola, where the borders of Angola, Namibia and Zambia meet.
Angola said it captured the base, called Jamba, on December 25, but UNITA says it is still active in the region and has pledged to launch assaults against Namibian soldiers if they join Angolan forces or cross into Angolan territory.
Shortly before Christmas, UNITA launched a mortar attack across the border on a police base in Namibia, killing one officer and wounding four others.
The Namibian government also blames UNITA for ambushes last week which killed three French children, and injured their parents injured and two aid workers. UNITA denies the charge, blaming undisciplined Angolan troops for the attack.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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