Alan Venter/LUSAKA

The shooting down of three Angolan air force Mikoyan MiG-23s in the first week of January by Unita forces fielding hand-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) has introduced a new dimension to the Angolan war. The MiGs were engaged in ground support operations against Dr Jonas Savimbi's rebel army. All three were downed in Angola's Central Highlands, where two large armies are battling for strategic control of Angola's heartland.

Unconfirmed reports also mention Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships being downed by Unita missiles. The media is prevented from entering the region, making it impossible to verify such claims. Most reports emanate from diplomats in Luanda and from those leaving the country, including mercenaries who have been airlifted out of Angola.

These events follow the shooting down of two Lockheed Martin C-130 transport aircraft under charter to the United Nations. Independent sources say that both C-130s were hit within a minute or two of lifting off from Angola's second largest city, Huambo. Vapour trails showed the presence of missiles.

The first C-130 crashed near Vila Nova about 40km (25nm) from Huambo and the second came down in flames in a steep uncontrollable spiral in the same region. Both ended up in areas strongly contested by both sides, one reason why it has been difficult to establish whether there were any survivors.

It was impossible to visit the crash sites until weeks afterwards and both the government and Unita have minefields in the area. All airports in the country have 5km or 10km landmine cordons around them, a fact highlighted when a Russian aircraft crashed on approach to Saurimo in the north east. The crew survived, but several members were killed by mines after they tried to get back to the airport on foot.

In addition, there are often varying accounts of the same event put about by the government of this vast west African state, which is almost as big as France, Italy and Spain together. So, too, with the C-130; Luanda has done its best to discount the fact that Unita has SAMs.

Two independent sources, both formerly linked to the South African mercenary organisation Executive Outcomes (EO), have told Flight International that Luanda and the Unita guerrilla movement are using mercenaries to achieve their military aims. While Unita has no air force, it is known that many of its tactical weapons - including SAMs - are in the hands of South African veterans, some of whom previously fought for the other side. During the 1993/4 phase of hostilities, it was the South African mercenary presence (under the auspices of EO) that forced Savimbi to negotiate.

One source suggests that, to prevent exposure of the role of these mercenaries, the Angolan Government prevaricated about allowing UN search and rescue teams into the area after the C-130 crashes. Its official line is that there are no foreign troops or airmen in the country. The source maintains that South African mercenary pilots are flying Mi-24 and Mi-17 helicopter gunships and that they are also at the controls of Angolan air force MiG-23s and Sukhoi bombers. Because of this, and despite the missile threat, he indicates that the Angolan air force had made significant inroads into enemy defences. He warns, however, that "-while Unita has been taking a lot of knocks, things could quickly change".

He believes that, if the air losses continue, the Angolan pilots might refuse to fly. "Already, some are reluctant to venture below 5,000ft [1,500m], which makes close air support impossible." If that were to happen, he says, the South African mercenary pilots would not be able to cope with the workload. It would take time to hire more and have them do the necessary conversions while Unita is subjecting such severe military pressure across a front almost 1,000km wide and with a dozen major towns.

Almost all aircraft to have crashed in Angola recently have been hit by Russian man-portable SA 14/16s. Most were bought on the East European arms bazaar.

SAMs have been acquired by Savimbi's agents, with end-user certificates issued by the governments of the West African states of Burkina Faso and Togo. Angola's mission to the UN recently protested to Secretary General Kofi Annan that both countries were training Savimbi's insurgent army. During the past year, the guerrilla leader was spotted several times on visits to Lomé, in Togo, and Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso.

Apart from the MiGs, other aircraft hit by missiles include an Antonov An-12, which went down, killing everybody on board shortly after take-off from Luanda late last month. Another Russian transport aircraft was hit while attempting to land at Malange, where Savimbi opened another offensive in early January. It landed safely, but with casualties.

That followed the shooting down by rebels of a private aircraft over Cuito and a helicopter which was hit while flying over Benguela province, south of Luanda. Military headquarters in Luanda claim that it had been hit by "field artillery fire", which most military observers regard as nonsense.

The missile threat in the southern half of Africa is widespread. In the neighbouring Congo (formerly Zaire), the Zimbabwe air force has lost one of its Hawker Hunters as well as "at least two" helicopter gunships to SAMs. Late last year, a missile fired by a rebel Congolese units near Kisangani downed a government Boeing 727. Everybody on board was killed.

There was also a Zimbabwe air force CASA C212 mistakenly landed by its pilot at a rebel base. While the aircraft was able to get away, all 16 Zimbabwean soldiers on board were taken prisoner. Four were later shot dead.

The use of missiles in these ongoing Central African wars is regarded by the West as serious, particularly since it is possible that SAMs could fall into the wrong hands among radicals in nearby Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania - or even South Africa. Pretoria is particularly concerned about the rise of Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalism in the Cape and parts of KwaZulu/Natal.

In Angola, missile deployment is likely to effect the efficacy of the Angolan army. Unita appears to have acquired a high degree of mobility in the bush, which past experience - particularly in Africa - has proved can be countered only by air power.

If the Angolan air force is unable or unwilling to counter Unita strikes because of SAMs, the war is likely to grind on.

A related problem is that Angola needs to pay for its security. Wars cost money and Luanda has spent billions of dollars upgrading its army and air force. Squadrons of MiGs and main battle tanks as well as infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) have been added in the past few years. The result is that the country has had to hock its oil supplies for years ahead.

In turn, Savimbi has learned valuable lessons from previous military escapades. He has used his gemstone mines to buy sophisticated military equipment from Russia.

Flight International was told that there is evidence that other nations are flying Angolan air force aircraft, "-and not all of them are mercenaries". Some aircrew seen at Luanda Airport and in small groups in the city's night spots were Arabs, possibly Libyan, the source claims.

This development could tie in with the bankrolling by Libya and others of President Laurent Kabila's war effort in the Congo. Zimbabwe President Mugabe's office admitted on 6 January that some financial support for the 6,000 Zimbabwe army troops involved in the Congo debacle had come from Libya.

Kabila made a direct approach to Tripoli months ago for "urgent" financial, material and manpower support to counter the rebel uprising in the east and south of his country. Sudan and Chad (both Islamic countries) immediately sent soldiers into the Congo. Both sides also hired mercenaries from South Africa and European countries.

Former South African EO gunship pilot Neall Ellis, who is flying an Mi-17 gunship under contract to the Nigerian-commanded ECOMOG force in and around Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, confirms that he had been offered combat jobs by both sides in the Angolan civil war, but also by the two adversaries in the Congo. He declined all offers, he says, because it is against South African law to work as a mercenary and because his "-peacekeeping role with a UN-recognised force offers better prospects".

Ellis had previously been assisted in countering rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) advances towards Freetown by several UK and US gunship pilots on ECOMOG contracts in Sierra Leone.

Much of the financial support - and most of the weapons used by the RUF- has come from Libya, most of it being routed through Liberia.

Source: Flight International