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Southern Africa's path to peace

SOUTHERN AFRICA moved a big step closer to peace this week when Angola, Cuba, and South Africa signed a protocol calling for troop withdrawals and independence for Namibia. It has been a long haul over months of mixed hope and doubt as timetables and other details were intricately negotiated. The final step comes next week, when the treaty will be formally signed in New York.

The parties to the accord deserve praise for sticking to it despite mistrust built up over years of conflict. The United States, through the tireless efforts of Chester Crocker, deputy secretary of state for African affairs, has effectively mediated the negotiations, bringing the disputants together and helping maintain momentum. The Soviets, too, played a positive part, nudging Marxist Angola and Cuba, whose troops have shored up the Angolan regime, toward constructive bargaining stances.

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All told, the southern Africa accord could prove a model for the resolution of regional conflicts - if the treaty goes according to plan.

That ``if'' has to be kept in mind. The document signed in Brazzaville starts a process, but it hardly resolves everything. Most important, Angola's civil war could easily flare up again, since the rebel forces under Jonas Savimbi remain in place even though their South African allies have exited. There are indications that South Africa intends to keep supplying the rebels.

No time should be lost in extending the negotiations to include Mr. Savimbi's role in a post-civil-war Angola. He and his followers ought to be assured of meaningful political participation, so that the fighting, which has raged for 13 years, can stop. Neighboring nations are willing to serve as mediators, but so far a negotiating formula acceptable to both the government and Savimbi has been elusive.

Independence for Namibia after 73 years of South African rule will be no simple task either. Pretoria's influence there is pervasive. Under the treaty, the independence process begins in April, with elections in November. The United Nations will supervise the transition. Its effort will need the full diplomatic and financial support of all member nations.

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