The government of Angola and the rebel UNITA movement are expected to sign a formal cease-fire agreement in the capital, Luanda on Thursday. The cease-fire may pave the way for the implementation of the 1994 Lusaka peace protocol and eventual peace after three decades of civil war.

The cease-fire will be signed by Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and interim UNITA leader Paulo Lukamba Gato. Also present will be the United Nations official Ibrahim Gambari and representatives of Portugal, Russia, and the United States, the so-called troika of countries overseeing implementation of the protocol.

Jo?o Porto, senior researcher at the independent Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, says the proposed cease-fire agreement is a comprehensive military document aimed at silencing the guns after 27 years of civil war in Angola. It has the potential, says Mr. Porto, of being an important beginning.

"Lets see what happens in the coming weeks," he said. "And expect, hope, that this will be in fact the first of a number of steps that will eventually lead to the implementation of the Lusaka protocol in all the elements that have been lacking for the last several years."

Three decades of civil war in Angola have devastated the country's economy and exacted huge suffering from its people. No one knows for sure how many have died but aid agencies say that a conservative estimate is 500,000. One million have suffered amputations from the landmines that litter the country, as many as one landmine for each of Angola's twelve million people. Four million are refugees forced by fighting to flee their homes and means of survival.

This latest initiative follows the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi last month. His deputy, Antonio Dembo, is believed to have died of natural causes a few weeks later. Analyst Porto says Mr. Savimbi's death created a window of opportunity to revive the defunct peace process.

"As we know, UNITA is not a new movement," he said. "UNITA was born in 1966, it is known to have a very rigid, autocratic structure. So, in a sense this charismatic leader has removed one of the main stumbling blocks for peace in Angola, there is no doubt about it."

The deaths of UNITA's two senior officials has resulted in a leadership vacuum which, says Mr. Porto, likely compelled UNITA to agree to peace talks. Even so, he says it appears that the talks leading up to the cease-fire have been freely conducted. And he says, there are several potential leaders in UNITA who could successfully lead UNITA through a peace process. Mr. Porto says it is essential that a leader emerges who can convince UNITA forces to support a ceasefire.

"UNITA troops, from our information are scattered mostly in the northern provinces and between Kwanzo Sul and Benguela," Mr. Porto said. "Now it is important that this message get through to them, because ultimately it is their inaction, if you will, that will guarantee this truce." Like several analysts in southern Africa, Mr. Porto says he is cautiously optimistic that a cease-fire in Angola can be implemented and lay the foundation for an ultimately successful peace process. But he says, for this to happen, both the Angolan government and UNITA will need to be serious and honest about their commitment to peace.