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UNITA Never Possessed Fighter Jets, Helicopters Says Group's Leader - 2002-11-21


The leader of Angola's former rebel group, UNITA, says reports the group once possessed fighter jets and helicopters were a disinformation ploy by the rebels.

UNITA Secretary-General Paulo Lukamba Gato says the rebels never had fighters or helicopters, just a desire to mislead government forces.

In a VOA interview in Luanda, Mr. Gato says the aircraft claims were a ruse. He says UNITA was playing what he characterizes as a mind game with the Angolan government.

He adds, "let us not forget that it was said during the war. That was the context."

Several news organizations, including the Voice of America, cited independent security sources as saying more than three years ago that the well-armed rebels, then fighting a civil war, had acquired six MIG-23 jet fighters, allegedly from suppliers in Ukraine.

There were also news reports alleging UNITA had obtained several MI-25 Hind Helicopters.

The security sources who told reporters about the aircraft had contacts with UNITA, but claimed to have independent knowledge of the jets and helicopters. One VOA source even cited an eyewitness who purportedly had seen the aircraft in rebel-held territory.

But there were never any confirmed reports of such aircraft being used during the war, which ended earlier this year after government troops killed rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

UNITA's denial that it ever had combat aircraft follows the recent release of a report by the U.N. Angola-sanctions monitoring committee that deals with the rebels' weapons stockpiles. It credits the military wing of UNITA with turning over what are described as "huge quantities of weapons to the government" as part of a post-war rebel demilitarization process.

But the same U.N. report also says "considerable amounts of arms remain unaccounted for."

It warns these weapons could resurface in Angola and be traded by criminal arms brokers, perhaps across the country's porous borders, into unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Alternatively, U.N. monitors warn unaccounted-for weapons could remain inside Angola, where they might fall into the hands of disaffected elements who could use them for criminal activities or possibly to launch a new rebellion against the government.

The U.N. report lists a wide array of weapons that have been turned in, mostly small arms. The limited number of pieces of heavy equipment consist of artillery pieces, anti-aircraft guns, and mortars.

The report says seven-missiles were turned in, but gives no details of what type.

According to South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, UNITA received from its Ukrainian suppliers so-called FROG ground-to-ground missiles with a range of 70 kilometers. Such missiles could have been used to rain terror onto government-held cities, including the capital, Luanda. But no such attacks were ever recorded.

Mr. Gato denies the rebels had this type of weapon, acting as if he had never heard of it and asking "what is a FROG?"

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