LISBON, Portugal (AP) – Jonas Savimbi, Angola’s charismatic rebel leader who was backed by the United States as an ally in Africa’s Cold War struggles but later became a pariah when he refused to end his country’s devastating civil war, has died. He was 67. For more than two decades, Savimbi waged a civil war against the Angolan government, which in recent years was largely funded by the illegal sales of diamonds.
Savimbi, an astute fighter who led Angola’s UNITA guerrillas, was killed in a battle with the army Friday after having evaded government troops for more than three decades, the Angolan government said.
Savimbi devoted his life to the struggle for power in oil- and diamond-rich Angola – first against its colonial ruler, Portugal, then against the government. His long battle crippled the southwest African nation’s economy and caused an acute humanitarian crisis.
Around 500,000 people are believed to have died in the civil war, which drove about 4 million people – a third of the population – from their homes.
Savimbi walked away from three peace accords in the 1990s and was renowned for his ruthless control over UNITA. His leadership of the group was never challenged.
His popularity with some sections of Angolan society and with foreign governments crumbled after he lost at the ballot box in the country’s first-ever elections in 1992 and returned to war.
In 1998, he walked away from another accord – the country’s third peace effort – and was ostracized by the international community.
His military capacity, funded by the illegal sale of diamonds, had waned in recent months but he was still able to stage bloody hit-and-run attacks on rural towns which targeted civilians.
Savimbi’s life as a guerrilla fighter began when he opposed Portugal’s colonial rule and founded UNITA in 1966.
He traveled widely, meeting with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung and Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. He adopted many of their guerrilla tactics for use in his mostly rural homeland, but remained cold to their political views.
He became the proxy of the United States and South Africa in the Cold War battle against the then-Marxist government.
In 1986, the rebel leader was received at the White House like a head of state, meeting then-President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office.
But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Angola’s government dropped its Marxist policies and moved closer to the United States, prompting U.S. oil companies to invest billions of dollars in the country. Savimbi, meanwhile, fell out of favor internationally.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker said Savimbi had “a world-class strategic mind.”
“It was difficult not to be impressed by this Angolan, who combined the qualities of warlord, paramount chief, demagogue, and statesman,” Crocker wrote in his 1992 book “High Noon in Southern Africa.”
The former U.N. special representative to Angola, Margaret Anstee, said in her 1996 book “Orphan of the Cold War,”: “Everything about (Savimbi) was larger than life. The man simply exuded charisma.”
Born August 3, 1934 into a poor family in the village of Munhango in Angola’s central highlands, Jonas Malheiro Savimbi was a university-educated guerrilla fighter who spoke three African and four European languages.
Educated mainly at missionary schools in Portuguese-ruled Angola, Savimbi left for Lisbon in 1947 on an American Methodist missionary scholarship to study medicine.
Harassed by Portugal’s feared political police because of his friendship with opponents of Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship, he fled Portugal in 1959 to continue his studies in Switzerland.
In 1961, he joined Holden Roberto’s UPA, the Union of Angolan Peoples, which later became the FNLA, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola. He gave his blessing to, but did not take part in, the UPA’s bloody uprising against the Portuguese the same year.
In 1965, when the fight against Portuguese rule stalled, he went to Beijing where he won support to found UNITA.
Much of UNITA’s top brass was selected from Savimbi’s Ovimbundu tribe, but he always resisted the notion that the Angolan civil war was fought along tribal lines.
At independence from Portugal in 1975, a peace accord brokered by the Portuguese quickly unraveled.
The governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, emboldened by help from the Cuban military, launched an offensive that routed UNITA and drove Savimbi deep into the bush, in what became the movement’s fabled “Long March.”
UNITA regrouped and began to receive the support of South African troops and CIA covert aid. Over the two decades of war Savimbi amassed a fighting force of more than 60,000 men but, crucially, always lacked the MPLA’s air power.
Coaxed by Portugal, Savimbi and MPLA leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been Angola’s president since 1977, signed a new peace deal in 1991. Savimbi walked away from that deal.
When he realized he could not win the war that followed 1992 elections, he accepted a fresh peace accord brokered by the United Nations in 1994.
But Savimbi was accused by the U.N. of dragging his feet, reluctant to recognize longtime foe Dos Santos as head of state.
Human rights groups accused his men of widespread abuses against civilians, including summary executions, rapes and beatings.
The government lost patience in December 1998, attacking UNITA’s central highland stronghold. The rebels gained the upper hand in early fighting before the 110,000-strong army finally retook control.
Savimbi was believed to have several wives and numerous children.