RENEWED violence is threatening the desert territory of Namibia - Africa's last colony - less than a week before the 700,000 voters go to the polls Nov. 7 to 11 in a United Nations supervised pre-independence ballot. Fears that the fragile peace process could be jeopardized have risen with the two main adversaries' mutual accusations of a military build-up.
South African officials claim a build-up of guerrillas of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) north of the Namibian border in Angola in apparent violation of the UN settlement plan. UN officials say they have no knowledge of a SWAPO build-up and have branded South African claims that they have intercepted UN messages confirming the build-up as false.
SWAPO, which is widely favored to win a majority of votes in the ballot, waged a bush war to end South Africa's 23-year rule of the territory. It signed a cease-fire before the UN peace plan went into effect on April 1 this year.
Western diplomats say they are aware of reports that some 1,500 SWAPO guerrillas have moved south of the 16th parallel in Angola - in apparent defiance of an international agreement - but have no evidence of any infiltration into Namibia.
The stakes for Pretoria are high. Failure of the UN plan could unleash further crippling international sanctions against South Africa and reverse recent diplomatic gains it has notched up as a result of its more flexible stance towards anti-apartheid groups. Leaders of neighboring black-ruled states have linked further rapprochement to Pretoria's meeting its obligations in Namibia.
``It appears that [South African Foreign Minister Roelof] Botha is indulging in some classic preemptive diplomacy to ensure that UN peace-keeping forces act on the alleged SWAPO build-up,'' said a Western diplomat.
Tensions rose sharply Wednesday when Mr. Botha announced that South African troops, confined to base under the UN plan, had been put on alert following intelligence reports of an incursion of guerrillas from Angola.
He said the information had been obtained from intercepted messages between units of the UN monitoring team.
But a spokesman for UN Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari said yesterday that the messages South Africa claimed to have intercepted did not emanate from the UN Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) which is monitoring the independence process.
``It continues to be the case that UNTAG is unable to confirm allegations that SWAPO combatants are present in southern Angola,'' the UN spokesman said.
But Botha insisted that intercepted UN messages referred to a grave situation and mentioned the movement of 600 SWAPO personnel between Oct. 23 and 31. He accused the UN of being ``too frightened to intervene'' and claimed that the messages had confirmed SWAPO's warning that UNTAG soldiers would be shot if they intervened.
South African Defense Force Chief Jannie Geldenhuys said in an interview with state-run radio yesterday that the ``threat of a SWAPO offensive'' should be dealt with by diplomatic means rather than military action.
Botha said unless South Africa received the necessary assurances it would act even if it meant delaying the ballot.
SWAPO officials vigorously denied the allegations and accused Botha of trying to sabotage the election.
``I think South Africa has now realized how widespread popular support for SWAPO is and it is resorting to tactics designed to limit the size of SWAPO's certain victory,'' said SWAPO Information Secretary Hidipo Hamutenya.
SWAPO officials pointed to recent reports, presently being investigated by UN officials, that the Pretoria-run South-West Africa Police were arming civilian defense units and former members of the controversial Koevoet (crowbar) counterinsurgency unit in the north of the territory in violation of the UN plan.
South African officials fear that if SWAPO fails to win the ballot it could resort to armed action. SWAPO has denied it is contemplating such action.
Botha summoned Western ambassadors Wednesday and urged them to do whatever they could to avoid a repetition of a SWAPO incursion in April which led to the heaviest fighting in the war.
Botha's claim came less than 24 hours after a unanimous UN Security Council resolution rapping South Africa for failing to comply ``fully'' with all the provisions of the UN plan.