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Stopping Offensive Against Angolan Rebels May Have Hidden Plan - 2002-03-13

Angolan authorities have ordered a halt to the offensive by government troops against UNITA rebels. The unilateral move is designed to foster peace contacts with rebel commanders. But authorities in Luanda may have a hidden agenda and a more lucrative goal.

Diamonds played a central role in fueling UNITA's guerrilla struggle. Now they may play a key role in restoring peace, though they could also trigger a new legal dispute.

That is because Angolan authorities and some UNITA politicians are desperately interested in recovering million of dollars worth of the precious gems unaccounted for since the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in a shoot-out with government troops last month.

According to sources in Angola, soldiers recovered a satellite telephone, documents and some personal belongings after the skirmish in the east of the country that resulted in Savimbi's death.

But they found none of the private stockpile of pink-and-yellow colored diamonds he reputedly kept with him. Estimates of their value range into the tens of million of dollars.

Experts also believe the rebel leader hid away additional stockpiles of diamonds outside Angola. They note none of the high-profile UNITA defectors who have surrendered in recent months have brought any diamonds or other assets with them.

UNITA politicians want to recover the diamonds, arguing they can be used to finance the future of the organization as a political party.

But the government has made no secret that it would also like to have the diamonds, adding to its already rich oil revenues.

Analysts say a cease-fire could facilitate negotiations with surviving rebel field commanders that would not only end the fighting and grant the rebels amnesty but also lead to the recovery of UNITA's hidden assets.

One top government military leader is understood to have lobbied for a ceasefire soon after Savimbi's death, arguing that finding the diamonds or those who know where they are hidden was more important than hunting down and killing the last remaining fugitive rebel leaders.

Angola has known little but bloody civil war since independence from Portugal in 1975. A 1994 U.N.-brokered peace accord broke down in 1998, leading to renewed fighting with the government vowing to wipe out UNITA.