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Angola Serious about Demobilizing UNITA, US Official Says - 2002-05-15

A top U.S. defense official said he believes Angolan authorities are serious about helping UNITA rebels demobilize following the end of the country's two-decade civil war. But the official said quick action must be taken to ensure demobilization centers housing tens of thousands of rebels and their families do not become "death camps."

Top Pentagon Africa official Michael Westphal said the government of Angola has allocated up to $50 million to assist an estimated 55,000 UNITA fighters and more than 300,000 dependents.

Mr. Westphal tells VOA in an interview following a trip to Luanda that the government is committed to making the process a success. "They want to make sure that as UNITA comes out of the bush that there is something that they can look at, something tangible to help them make the process from a military organization to a political organization within Angolan society," he said.

But the Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for African Affairs said the logistic requirements to take care of the tens of thousands of people involved pose a serious challenge.

And he said Angolan officials, committed to the success of the operation, are looking for U.S., Portuguese and other international assistance. He said such aid will be essential to prevent a possible catastrophe in the demobilization camps where deaths from malnutrition and sickness are already reported.

"My hope and my belief is that they are in a position to be able to do something to help the Angolans to ensure that these camps do not become death camps," Mr. Westphal said.

The Pentagon official said the Defense Department has capabilities that could be put to use in a humanitarian relief mission for Angola. But he said no specifics have so far been discussed with Luanda or within the U.S. government about how the United States can play a role.

"We need to start moving on it and I think we are. Now, how quickly? You know, it takes a while to get things," Mr. Westphal said.

Defense officials see the demobilization process as crucial to the successful restoration of peace in Angola following the death of longtime rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

They fear if food, medical aid and other assistance is not available, rebel fighters could abandon the camps and turn to banditry, fueling renewed chaos in the countryside.