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LUANDA (Reuters) - Nine Angolan policemen and 13 members of a millenarian Christian sect have been killed in clashes in the last week in the central Huambo province, police said, in violence local officials say is being stoked by the main opposition UNITA party.
UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) denies any role in the violence in Huambo, a party stronghold, and has accused the police of killing "hundreds" of people in revenge attacks since the death of the nine officers.
Reuters could not independently confirm the deaths cited by UNITA.
Angolan police said its officers were shot dead during raids conducted last week aimed at capturing Jose Kalupeteka, leader of the sect "The Light of the World". He was later arrested.
Angola's government has branded the Light of the World, which predicts the world will end on Dec. 31 and encourages its members to live in seclusion, an illegal organization.
The sect, which has more than 3,000 members, is a dissident branch of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and was formed by Kalupeteka more than a decade ago, according to state media.
"The 13 dead (sect members) are snipers belonging to Kalupeteka who were countering and disrupting our operations," police spokesman Paulo Gaspar Almeida told reporters on Wednesday in Huambo, Angola's second largest city.
Almeida did not provide the exact dates of the raids.
There were further clashes between the sect and police on Wednesday south of the city, a separate police statement said.
UNITA accuses the police of orchestrating the violence in order to suppress planned nationwide demonstrations this month against Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' 36-year rule.
Dos Santos has blamed the Huambo clashes on the Light of the World but the Huambo provincial government, led by the president's ruling MPLA party, has said UNITA is behind the unrest.
"The sect, taking advantage of the faith of (Kalupeteka's) followers, has put in motion a political plan well-orchestrated and directed, with many of the traits of UNITA," said a local government statement published by state media on Thursday.
Angola, Africa's second largest crude exporter and a key oil supplier to China, still suffers from sporadic violence as it recovers from a 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Gareth Jones