Global Policy Forum

Rebels Explain Mystery of Downed UN Planes


By Paul Knox

Globe and Mail , Toronto
January 19, 2000

United Nations -- In unusual videotaped testimony shown to UN diplomats yesterday, defectors from Angola's rebel army said an order from their leader led to the downing of two United Nations relief planes a year ago, killing 23 people.

Diplomats in the austere UN Security Council chamber watched as ex-guerrillas in camouflage battle dress told how rebel leader Jonas Savimbi gave orders to fire on aircraft over rebel territory shortly before the UN planes were attacked.

The former rebels also outlined what they said was Mr. Savimbi's method of bartering diamonds for weapons with international arms dealers. They said he kept cash to finance his activities in the homes of friendly African presidents, whom they did not name.

The defectors spoke in interviews taped in Angola last week with Canada's UN ambassador, Robert Fowler. He is spearheading United Nations efforts to choke off the flow of weapons to Mr. Savimbi and bar him from trading black-market diamonds for supplies.

A chartered Hercules C-130 aircraft carrying 14 people was shot down on Dec. 26, 1998 near Huambo in central Angola. A second C-130, carrying nine people, was downed on Jan. 2, 1999. Mr. Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which has been fighting government troops for most of the last 25 years, has denied responsibility for the attacks. But one of the defectors, Lieutenant-Colonel Jose Antonio Gil, said a rebel named Gregorio shot down both planes using a surface-to-air missile launcher. "He had instructions to bring down any aircraft in range of anti-aircraft guns," said Lt.-Col. Gil.

He and another defector, General Jacinto Bandua, told Mr. Fowler that Mr. Savimbi gave orders to destroy traces of the downed planes. The men said the UNITA leader was not concerned about the possibility of UN aircraft being shot down. "Savimbi said that UN aircraft were in the service of the [Angola] government," Lt.-Col. Gil said.

Mr. Fowler showed the interviews to an open meeting of the council, which has passed several resolutions aimed at weakening Mr. Savimbi's ability to pursue the war. Mr. Fowler said later the accounts of the UNITA defectors, who are now serving in the Angolan government forces, had not been independently corroborated.

The Angolan government brought the officers to a UN office outside Luanda, the capital city, for the interviews. But Mr. Fowler said no government officials were present during the sessions and his impression was that the officers were speaking freely. He called the accounts "very compelling and very precise." He said a 10-member panel of experts on Angola would consider them in preparing a report on sanctions to be given to the council.

Canada has taken on the task of heading the Angola sanctions. Mr. Fowler said he hopes the expert panel will be able to "name and shame" governments and individuals responsible for aiding Mr. Savimbi's war.

UNITA, originally backed by the United States and South Africa, has become increasingly friendless. The UN, which failed repeatedly to prevent renewed fighting, halted most of its Angola operations after the planes were shot down. The conflict has claimed an estimated one million lives, uprooted two million people and sent an estimated 160,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Zambia. Angola has about 12 million people.

The war is one of several in Africa being debated in the Security Council at the instigation of U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who holds the council's rotating presidency this month. The U.S. envoy -- perhaps tongue-in-cheek -- called Mr. Fowler's tape an "Academy Award-winning performance." It was spliced together quickly out of hours of footage after Mr. Fowler returned from Angola on Sunday.

Mr. Fowler said the defectors also named specific individuals who have dealt with UNITA, but he wants the expert panel to weigh the allegations before naming names. The defectors, apparently relaxed and sitting in front of a blue UN symbol, gave broad accounts of UNITA's logistics.

Some accounts of the war cite Ukraine as a supplier of weapons to UNITA. But according to the defectors, military equipment came from independent brokers. Colonel Alcides Kangunga said UNITA would put the word out that it needed certain supplies. He said arms dealers would bid, offering to deliver the weapons to a UNITA-controlled airstrip in exchange for diamonds mined in UNITA-controlled territory.

Diamond experts from UNITA and the arms dealers would agree on the value of rough gemstones, he said. "So UNITA didn't talk to governments about buying weapons -- they just talked to the middlemen?" Mr. Fowler asked. "Exactly," Col. Kangunga replied.

Because of UN sanctions, Gen. Bandua said, Mr. Savimbi was unable to keep money in foreign banks. "But he went around keeping money in the houses of presidents who were his friends," he said, adding: "In his own house he has five safes where he keeps money."

More Information on Angola Sanctions


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