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The Yetwene mine staff who vanished in Angola

In November 1998 at dawn, a diamond mine in Angola’s remote Lunda Norte province was attacked by a group of between 50 and 100 armed men. Vulnerable, unarmed and totally outnumbered, the mainly expatriate workforce was surrounded on three sides. Several men lost their lives during the gunfire. Eight others were marched into the bush at gunpoint, never to be seen again. Four of these men were foreign nationals. This is their story:

At the time of the attack, Angola was supposedly experiencing peace after 30 years of civil war between the ruling MPLA and Jonas Savimbi’s rebel movement, UNITA, but a month after the Yetwene assault, Angolan government jets bombarded UNITA’s Central Highlands strongholds of Andulo and Bailundo, as infantry units supported by tanks advanced by road. Angola’s fragile four-year peace accord had come to an end, making a swift investigation and the search for the missing men virtually impossible.

The attack on Yetwene bore all the hallmarks of a classic UNITA raid, yet the rebel movement – who had been fighting the MPLA since independence from Portugal in 1975 – initially denied involvement. It soon became apparent that this was not a simple hostage taking by the rebel group.

Adding to the families’ angst, speculation as to the motive for the attack ran rife, particularly in the British media, based on old associations of the controversial mining company that employed the men – DiamondWorks’ wholly-owned subsidiary, Branch Energy Limited.

UN Sanctions against UNITA prevented the relevant foreign governments from contacting Savimbi without special dispensation, but even once this was finally obtained, governments seemed to do little to help find their citizens.

Tim Spicer, a controversial figure at the centre of the ‘Arms to Africa’ scandal and subject at the time of the Sierra Leone Select Committee enquiry, was employed by DiamondWorks to find the abductees, resulting in a stance of zero publicity. However, this became a stumbling block for the family of Briton Jason Pope when it came to dealing with the Foreign Office.

Promises, lies and extortion followed, along with changes in ownership of the company that employed the men, leaving the families to fend for themselves. They were soon to discover, as Oscar Wilde once said ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’

A state-of-the-art mine in the middle of nowhere

The publication Mining Journal visited Yetwene diamond mine in February 1998, eight months before the attack and shortly before the official opening. Former editor Richard Morgan was among the press contingent flown in by DiamondWorks to the site in Lunda Norte in north-eastern Angola. This series of photographs taken during his visit show just how remote the Yetwene minesite was.  Photo credits:  Mining Journal