Clashes in Angola escalate

Johannesburg, South Africa. December 17 1999

The Angolan government's campaign against Unita rebels is targeting Unita supply lines, and threatens to spill over into Namibia and Zambia.


This has been a season of rumour in Luanda, with speculation over Unita's next moves as thick as the flowering of the flame trees. Five weeks of near hiatus in major confrontations following the fall of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi's headquarters has now been ended by intensified fighting along borders associated with the rebels' supply lines, with the war threatening to spread into Zambia and Namibia.

An increase in refugees fleeing the fighting gives some idea of the scale of the confrontations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported a sharp rise in the numbers of Angolan refugees. About 2 500 newly displaced people have crossed in recent days into northern Namibia and western Zambia.

According to the UN information service, the latest fighting has heightened tensions in the Kavango and Caprivi Strip border areas.

In the past week, there has been a major escalation in fighting in the area bordering Caprivi, with at least one incursion across the border. Namibian police say a group of 12 Unita rebels launched a mortar attack on the base of the Namibian paramilitary special field force (SFF), 80km west of the Namibian town of Rundu. The attack followed the fall of Calai, across the river, to the Angolan government army (FAA). Angolan Radio LAC, an independent radio station, claimed 400 Unita troops surrendered at Rundu.

Rundu, which became a supply post for logistical support to Unita in the 1970s, retained its role as a major smuggling post until recent months. It is now being used by the FAA to fly in fuel, with the agreement of the Namibian government, which has a bilateral security agreement with Angola.

The assault on the Namibian SFF position by Unita seems to have caused a rapid change of policy by the Namibian government. At the beginning of this week, Sapa reported Major General Martin Shalli announced that Namibia would, if need be, give permission to Angola to launch attacks on Unita from Nambian territory.

There are Namibian concerns regarding the threat of Unita incursions. The volatile Caprivi strip has already seen one rebellion this year, with reports that Caprivian secessionists may be allied to the Angolan rebel movement.

Namibia's close military alliance with Angola in the stalemated war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is also a factor in military relations between the two countries. The Namibian government has moved troops up to the Angolan border, though joint military operations against Unita have been ruled out.

Concern that the spill-over from Angola's civil war may reignite regional conflict is intensified by the situation in the DRC, where the shaky peace treaty seems in danger of falling apart amid government claims that rebel groups, aided by Unita forces, have launched several attacks in the past three weeks. The claims, which have not been independently confirmed, are that Unita has taken part in attacks on Kimpangu to the west of Kinshasa, and in the northeast of the country; they were contained in a military communiqué distributed by the DRC government.

Meanwhile heavy fighting along the Zambian border and bombing near Jhimbe, a village inside the Zambian border, have been reported by the Post of Zambia. The incident has been regarded as a spill-over from Angolan forces bombing and shelling Unita positions on the border, where rebel forces have been regrouping.

There were no Zambian casualties.

Fighting in Moxico province has also led to increased land-mine incidents around the government-held town of Luena, according to Fernando Mununga, head of the Team for the Evaluation of Accidents from Mines.