JOHANNESBURG, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Angola's UNITA rebels denied on Thursday that their leader Jonas Savimbi had ordered his forces to shoot down two U.N. aircraft over a year ago, with the loss of 23 lives.
Alcides Sakala, a senior aide to Savimbi, told Reuters by satellite telephone from Angola that the planes had been downed by government troops in order to discredit the rebel movement.
"We deny in the most vigorous terms suggestions that the planes were shot down by UNITA, or indeed on the orders of Dr Savimbi," Sakala said.
"At the time the planes went down, Dr Savimbi was not even in the operational area. The claims that he gave orders to shoot down the planes are most absurd indeed," he added.
Sakala, who declined to reveal his exact location in Angola, said he was speaking on Savimbi's personal authority.
DEFECTORS SAY SAVIMBI GAVE ORDERS
Defectors from UNITA said in a videotape shown to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that UNITA troops shot down the planes on Savimbi's orders.
The video was shown by Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler, chairman of the council's Angola sanctions committee. The envoy has recently returned from a visit to Angola to study ways of tightening U.N. sanctions against UNITA, which controls several of the country's diamond-producing regions.
One of six defectors interviewed by Fowler said through an interpreter that shoulder-fired missiles were used against the two U.N. flights.
A U.N. C-130 transport aircraft with 10 U.N. staff and four crew was shot down on December 26, 1998. Another U.N. plane with four crew and five passengers went down on January 2, 1999.
"We had instructions to bring down any type of aircraft that was flying within range of our anti-aircraft guns," the defector was recorded as saying.
"Including United Nations aircraft?" Fowler asked.
"Including ... everything that was an aircraft, because Savimbi said that the U.N. aircraft were in the service of the government," the defector replied.
The same witness also said that when a plane was brought down, "Savimbi gave instructions that the soldiers should bury the aircraft carcass, in other words, to make it impossible to see or visit the site".
Sakala called for international investigations into the shootings, saying UNITA would be ready to cooperate "in order to establish the truth.
"And the truth is that government forces shot down the planes in order to discredit our movement and in particular, Dr Savimbi."
Fowler is to issue a report soon on his trip to Angola, including the findings of experts on his committee who have been investigating sanctions-busting in various parts of the world.
Fresh war between government forces and UNITA re-erupted in December 1998 when Luanda launched attacks on the UNITA strongholds of Andulo and Bailundo after accusing the rebels of failing to comply with peace accords.
The government army has pushed UNITA to the far south and east of the southern African nation of 12 million people.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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