JOHANNESBURG, 5 December (IRIN) - Last month Namibia granted its northern neighbour Angola the right to use its territory to launch attacks against the last southern strongholds of the UNITA rebel movement under a mutual defence pact. With a quick victory still elusive, Namibia now finds itself irrevocably drawn into one of Africa's bloodiest and longest-running civil wars.
According to analysts, in three weeks of escalated fighting and shelling on both sides of the border, thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. There have been hit-and-run attacks against civilians, tourists and humanitarian workers, fresh landmines have been placed along strategic roads, and tension is growing daily as a new atmosphere of insecurity prevails.
"Now, we have taken sides in the Angolan conflict and the result is that we have abandoned our neutrality, and find we are having to live with the very sad and very ugly consequences of this war. Namibia has relinquished its neutrality," said Henning Melber, director of the Namibia Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU).
He said Namibia's international reputation had been dented by its intervention with Zimbabwe in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), its handling of separatist tensions in the northeast Caprivi Strip, and the presence of Angolan troops on Namibian soil.
Human rights violations
Accusations by rights activists of serious human rights violations, including torture and summary executions of Angolan nationals allegedly returned to Angolan forces by the Namibian authorities have persisted, while the international community has expressed concern that the refugees, whose numbers have now reached over 7,000, have not been accorded sufficient protection by the Namibian authorities. Senior Western diplomats told IRIN they were also growing concerned, and this week reiterated warnings to foreigners to avoid travelling to the border areas.
As the Regional Director for Southern Africa of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Nicolas Bwakira, flew to the Namibian capital Windhoek this week for what he called a first-hand assessment and consultations with the government, a senior European diplomat told IRIN: "There is no question that our assessment of the situation is less positive than that of the Namibian authorities. The government is quite adamant that there are no risks in the region and that the area is under control. We cannot verify the reports of human rights violations, but they persist all the time, and rumours are flying."
Ambassadors in Namibia to meet
Ambassadors based in Windhoek planned to hold an extraordinary meeting on the situation and formulate an approach to the government for a "clearer" view, diplomats said.
This sparsely populated country of 1.6 million people - of whom roughly half live in the northern provinces which share more than 1,000 km of border with Angola - has been peaceful since independence from South Africa a decade ago when President Sam Nujoma, leader of the ruling Southwest Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), was swept to power.
Nora Schimming-Chase, Nujoma's former ambassador to Germany, and now a leader of the new opposition Congress of Democrats (CoD), told IRIN: "What has been happening since our elections a month ago, through Christmas and the New Year, is that we are being sucked into a war with no end in sight. It is an over-simplification to blame UNITA for every retaliatory attack, it is not good enough when the government keeps blaming them and promising that everything is under control."
Government explanation demanded
She accused the government of failing to explain why the Angolans were in Namibia under the mutual defence pact. It was also "regionalising" the Angolan conflict, while history has shown that UNITA through its guerrilla tactics was able to sustain the conflict. Neither had the government condemned the attacks on civilians. "Landmines are being planted again, we are in a war, people feel insecure in the border regions, their shops and homes are being looted by armed men, and refugees are pouring in. It is extremely, extremely worrying," she said.
The historic links
All cited strong links in Namibia for both UNITA and Angola's ruling MPLA party in a part of the world where in the early 1970s SWAPO was once allied with UNITA, before joining forces with the MPLA government after Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975. SWAPO at the time needed all the help it could get in its war against the South African apartheid government which backed UNITA.
"For historic and ethnic reasons, I would say UNITA's links are probably even stronger in Namibia, and there are close relations between the communities living on both sides of the borders," said Melber.
Gwen Lister, editor of the independent 'The Namibian' newspaper said both sides in the Angolan conflict were probably responsible for the atrocities reported and retaliatory attacks by armed men. She also cited many armed "renegades" in the border region as well.
Both described it as a "disaster" for Namibia's tourist industry which relies heavily on the country's northern game parks and lodges in the border zone, and both agreed that a military victory would carry no weight without a properly negotiated settlement to the Angolan conflict.
The regional implications
In a further example of how the Angolan conflict was spreading, UNHCR said it was checking reports that an estimated 3,000 people had fled across the Angolan border this week into a corner of southwest Zambia north of the Victoria Falls which also shares borders with Caprivi. Zambia is already accommodating 13,000 Angolans who fled across its western borders in recent weeks.
Melber said the "old boys' club" of Nujoma, Mugabe, President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and President Laurent-Desire Kabila of DRC stood in sharp contast to the "modernisers" of the sub-continent, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. The latter he said shared a joint belief in negotiations, and a more "sophisticated enlightened" approach. Only a negotiated settlement would resolve the Angolan crisis, he stressed.
His view is shared by the South African government, which said it was also growing "concerned". Daniel Ngwepe, a foreign ministry spokesman said: "South Africa has always maintained that the road to lasting peace is only through a concerted effort to address the root cause of the problems. If the MPLA or if UNITA win on the battlefield, the problem will not go away. We have called for a dialogue and a negotiated solution."
In an editorial this week, 'The Namibian' said: "The situation on our northern borders could erupt into yet another regional conflagration unless it is handled as diplomatically as possible."
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