Angolan army says rebel leader is dead

Saturday, February 23, 2002

LUANDA, Angola -- Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel group that has fought the government and frustrated peace efforts for nearly three decades, was killed Friday in a military attack on UNITA forces in southeast Angola, the army and government said.

The armed forces said Savimbi, 67, died around 3 p.m. in an offensive in Moxico province.

There was no independent confirmation of the claim. UNITA officials, who are hiding in the Angolan bush, were not available for comment.

If confirmed, Savimbi's death could open the way for long-lasting peace in the southwest African country where civil war has raged off and on for 27 years.

Half a million people are believed to have died because of the war, though there are no confirmed figures. About 4 million people -- roughly one-third of the population -- have been driven from their homes by the fighting.

Savimbi's animosity toward President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled since 1977, has repeatedly frustrated international efforts to end the fighting. Three peace deals have collapsed.

The government said Friday it was ready to fully implement a 1994 peace accord calling for regular democratic elections.

Aldemiro Vaz de Conceicao, spokesman for President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, said the army was holding Savimbi's body in Moxico.

"We're going to broadcast television footage of the body," Vaz de Conceicao said. The footage wasn't expected to arrive in Luanda until Saturday because of bad weather.

In several neighborhoods, local residents hooted their car horns in celebration Friday.

Police urged calm. Two police helicopters hovered over the coastal city, and red tracers from automatic weapons fired by the presidential guard streaked across the night sky. Several thousand elite troops were guarding the presidential palace on the outskirts of the capital.

It was not clear whether anyone from UNITA's ranks could replace Savimbi. UNITA vice president Antonio Dembo and Savimbi's close aide Paulo Lukamba Gato are believed to be alive and hiding in rural Angola.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: