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Angolan Government Claims Savimbi is Dead - 2002-02-23

The Angolan military claims to have killed UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

A joint statement by the Angolan government and military says Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle Friday in the southwestern province of Moxico.

There has not yet been any independent confirmation of the claim, but the U.S. State Department says it has heard reports of Mr. Savimbi's death from multiple sources. The governor of Moxico province tells VOA Mr. Savimbi's body will be transferred to the provincial capital, Luena, on Saturday from the area where the fighting took place. He says the body will be shown to journalists at that time.

For months, the government has claimed to be closing in on Mr. Savimbi's location. Several senior UNITA officials have been captured recently in Moxico province.

It is not yet clear how his death will affect Angola's long-running civil war. It will probably not mean an immediate end to the hostilities.

Several of Mr. Savimbi's top aides are believed to be alive and still in hiding elsewhere in Angola, and they could in theory take over leadership of UNITA. But many analysts believe Mr. Savimbi was so central to the very existence of UNITA that, if confirmed, his death would deal a devastating blow from which the rebel movement is not likely to recover.

Jonas Savimbi has led UNITA for more than 30 years, since its birth as a liberation movement struggling against Portuguese colonial power. But since independence in 1975, UNITA rebels have fought against Angolan government troops almost nonstop.

UNITA is widely believed to fund its continued operations through illegal diamond sales, in violation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

During the Cold War, the rebel group was backed by the United States and South Africa in a proxy war against the Marxist Angolan government, which was backed by the Soviet Union.

But the end of the Cold War also changed the dynamics of the Angolan civil war. Mr. Savimbi lost most of his international support. The United States has moved closer to the Angolan government and its rich oil reserves.

There was a brief lull in the civil war in 1992, when a series of United Nations peace initiatives led to elections. UNITA lost at the polls, and Mr. Savimbi led his troops back into battle again. It now appears that he has died the way he lived, fighting in the bush, until the very end.