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Angola Rebels Will Return Orphans

Angolan rebels killed at least 200 people during a raid on an orphanage in a rural town last weekend, radio Ecclesia reported on Wednesday.

Angola's UNITA rebels said Wednesday they will hand over to Roman Catholic missionaries any children abducted by their troops during the raid.

A man burying bodies of the victims told the church-run radio station that at least 200 people were killed in Saturday's raid on Caxito, 31 miles from the capital Luanda. Aid agencies said the death toll could be much higher.

"With these people we buried and those that were taken (by their families) the total already comes to 200 bodies," he said. Initially, the death toll was reported at 79.

The attack was blamed on rebels of National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). They have been fighting the Luanda government since independence from Portugal in 1975.

The rebels kidnapped 51 boys and nine girls aged 10 to 18 from a boarding school for war orphans at around midnight on Saturday, said Mike Viholm, spokesman for Development Aid from People to People, which runs the school.

Two adults were also seized.

In a statement sent Wednesday by e-mail to The Associated Press bureau in Lisbon, UNITA's chief of staff Gen. Geraldo Abreu said he had ordered an internal investigation into reports his troops forcibly took 60 children from a school in Caxito.

Any children found to have been abducted "will be handed over…to the nearest Catholic mission," the statement said.

Rebels commonly use children to cook, clean and carry supplies. Older boys are often forced to fight and the girls become concubines.

Last year, UNITA abducted 21 children from an orphanage in the central highland city of Huambo. Four children escaped but the rest have not been seen since.

A woman who escaped from the rebels also told the church radio that the raiders had planned to kill the governor of Caxito and the local police commander.

The agencies and the United Nations strongly condemned the kidnappings, but officials said they did not hold out much hope for the safe return of the children.

In a joint statement, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordination Office in Luanda, Angola, and the UNICEF delegation said they were "shocked and saddened" by the abduction of the children.

In Luanda on Tuesday, Angola's Roman Catholic bishops issued a joint statement describing the Caxito attack as "a cowardly and barbaric act."

The dead included a government soldier, four policemen and four Angolan aid agency workers. Rebel officers also questioned aid workers from the United States, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Brazil and Hungary.

The UNITA statement said rebel troops would not interfere with the work of aid agencies in Angola.

More than 3,000 people who fled Caxito are holed up in a Luanda suburb, afraid to return, the radio said.

The attack cast new doubt on recent indications the foes were ready to discuss a peaceful end to the civil wr, which has driven an estimated 3.8 million people — about one-third of the population — from their homes, causing an acute humanitarian crisis.

Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA, had indicated he was ready to return to the implementation of a peace deal brokered by the United Nations in 1994.

The accord collapsed in 1998. Deals signed in 1975 and 1991 also collapsed. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos said last week he was ready to examine recent peace overtures from Savimbi.

The army dislodged UNITA from its central highland strongholds 15 months ago and retook control of all the country's major cities in a major offensive.

The war has left Angola impoverished, despite its rich deposits of natural resources. The year 2000 U.N. human development report ranked Angola 160th out of 174 countries in terms of how well its people lived.

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