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Angolan civilians bear brunt of 12-year war. Despite superpower aid to Luanda and rebels, win for either seems far

Of all the grisly statistics in Angola's war against South African-supported insurgents, one stands out: Some 15,000 Angolan civilians have lost arms, legs, or both in what one UN aid official terms ``this war that strikes from farm to farm, village to village, and then moves on again.''

It is the nature of this war that even as superpower interests - American, Soviet, Cuban, South African - come increasingly into play, no side seems capable of scoring an outright victory. The relative advantage has swung back and forth with each successive annual offensive.

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But 12 years after the fighting began, at Angola's independence from Portugal, Jonas Savimbi's South Africa- and United States-backed Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) seems as far as ever from overturning the East bloc-supported government in Luanda.

Only a midnight-to-dawn curfew, imposed during a major South African push three years ago, offers any evident reminder in the capital of the violence outside.

Yet the government, for its part, is not yet within reach of ending, once and for all, a UNITA assault that has devastated the rural economy and held on to islands of turf totalling an estimated one-third of Angola.

Some Western estimates, moreover, suggest that the government remains forced to earmark at least half of its scarce economic resources to battling the insurgency. And if the government here is dismissive of UNITA's chances of anything approaching ``victory,'' even the most self-confident officials seem concerned by Mr. Savimbi's reputation as a dashing battlefield commander and articulate international spokesman against ``Soviet dominance'' of Angola.

``Savimbi,'' an official says, ``is a charismatic figure.''

In some respects, the Angolan war has changed over the years. Officials say that Cuba's 30,000-strong military force here has been phased out of any ``front-line'' offensive role since the end of the 1970s. Western diplomats here confirm this.

South Africa, since the second of its major incursions into southern Angola in 1984, has shifted to a similar role in its support of UNITA.

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The US, after a retreat from UNITA support under the Carter administration, resumed direct backing last year that reportedly includes the transfer of shoulder-fired, antiaircraft Stinger missiles to Savimbi's troops.

Angolan officials, and everyone else here, remain keenly aware of South Africa's capability to resume a major push with UNITA if Pretoria so decides.

And the South Africans and Americans remain alert to the possibility of a Soviet-Cuban bid to help Luanda mount a new drive to overrun key UNITA outposts.

``We noted earlier this year,'' one Western ambassador remarks, ``that an awful lot of Soviet equipment was being ferried down from Luanda toward UNITA in the south of the country.''

``But what for? We could - and still can - only guess,'' the ambassador adds. ``It could be the arrival of materiel ordered long before. It could foreshadow a make-or-break offensive. Or, for that matter, it could be one final large batch of aid before Moscow or Havana decides to retreat from its role in Angola.''

Meanwhile, the war rumbles on - in a brutal pattern of rural push and counterpush that leaves civilians, especially farm villagers, as the principle victims.

While the rebels' US Stinger missiles grab the most headlines, indiscriminately planted antipersonnel land mines claim many ``battle'' victims.

Each side blames the other for the mining.

Western diplomats and aid workers here, however, believe that Savimbi's men are the main culprits. Unable as yet to mount a conventional offensive on government strongholds near Luanda, the capital, UNITA has in recent years focused much of its activity on ``economic'' targets. Transport vehicles are ambushed on main rural roads. The crucially important railway from Benguela, on the coast, into the east of Angola has been routinely targeted.

Savimbi, in an apparent bid to outflank Luanda politically, proposed to neighboring states that he ``reopen'' the railroad with international guarantees that it not be used for Angolan military transports.

But with regional leaders leery of publicly associating themselves with UNITA, Savimbi amended his offer last week.

He vowed a new, overall offensive designed to humble alleged Soviet-Cuban designs for one of their own - and said he would reopen Benguela afterward.

``The Cubans will leave Angola only when UNITA inflicts heavy casualties on Fidel Castro's mercenaries,'' Savimbi said in a statement released by UNITA representatives in Portugal.

Says one Western ambassador, ``Savimbi seems to have increased the number of attacks on the railroad since the resumption of Angolan-US political talks in May. Some of the attacks have been officially admitted here. Others, we know about from our own sources.'' A UN official says UNITA has succeeded in slowing Benguela railroad traffic to roughly a single train each fortnight.

On the main road inland from Luanda to Malanje, by contrast, the government seems to have largely quelled UNITA attacks. Last year, an aid official says, vehicles simply could not move on the road without an Angolan Army convoy escort.

``Now it is no longer absolutely necessary to have a convoy,'' the official says, ``although it is still the accepted practice.''

In the north, UNITA is understood to have attempted an attack on the country's key diamond mine area last Christmas - exactly two years after a similar strike forced the shutdown of the mine. But this time the assault was rebuffed.

The main, and most successful, UNITA ``economic'' offensive, diplomats here maintain, has involved the indiscriminate planting of land mines in grain fields.

With young men either fighting in the Angolan Army or off in Luanda seeking work, it is the elderly, the women, and the children who do Angola's harvesting. It is they, too, upon whom the war often takes the biggest toll. Sadly, it is in lost arms and legs that many Western diplomats here have begun to chart the course of the war.

Asked whether UNITA is making new inroads against the government in the latest of the war's annual offensives, one ambassador replies: ``I think there has been much less activity this year, things are at least so far significantly calmer.''

Asked for evidence, he says the Red Cross and other aid officials are reporting a continuous decline in mine victims since 1985. ``I spoke to one doctor in an aid center in the south who said he had fitted 25 artificial limbs this year - as opposed to 100 last year, and 250 the year before.''

Third in a four-part series. Next: The East-bloc connection.

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