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Savimbi's Silence is Mystery - 2001-12-07

It has been several months since senior officials of Angola's UNITA rebel movement have made any public statements. Their silence has raised questions about the group's capacity to continue Angola's long-running civil war.

UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi hasn't made any public statements in nearly half a year. Senior UNITA officials who once kept in regular contact with the Voice of America haven't been heard from for nearly the same amount of time. The recently captured wife of one top Savimbi aide claims the UNITA leader has been eliminating his closest supporters. She also contends the Angolan rebel movement is near total collapse.

But U.S. government officials who keep tabs on Angolan affairs say UNITA, though weakened over the past two years, remains a viable force. And while the movement's leaders have been largely silent, at least publicly, the same officials say, despite battlefield setbacks, UNITA has re-established its command-and-control network for guiding field commanders as the civil war drones on.

Other American officials say they have no reason to believe Mr. Savimbi is dead, despite reports earlier this year that he was seriously ill and may have left Angola to seek medical treatment abroad.

The officials say they, too, have noted the rebel leader's silence. But they suggest that, as someone frequently accused of being a terrorist, Mr. Savimbi may be intentionally adopting a low profile at a time when the world community is cracking down on terrorist groups like al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Still other U.S. officials attach significance to his silence in terms of the lack of follow-up to Mr. Savimbi's last public statements in favor of a peace dialogue with the government of President Eduardo Dos Santos.

The United States has broken off formal contacts with UNITA but continues to press for a peaceful resolution of the long-running Angolan civil war. Mr. Dos Santos, while initially opposed to any further talks, has shown signs of interest in reviving negotiations.

But U.S. officials note UNITA forces continue to fight, staging what they describe as high-profile attacks. These have included an attack on a power station that plunged the capital, Luanda, into darkness, a bloody assault on a train and the attack on a children's home that saw scores of youth kidnapped.

Despite this, these officials, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, say UNITA lacks the ability to attack and seize any government-held cities. And they also say the rebels lack the capacity of seriously threatening Mr. Dos Santos' grip on power.