UNITA Claims Biggest Victory Ever Over Government Forces
JAMBA, Angola (AP) _ Rebel leader Jonas Savimbi said today that his forces had won the biggest victory of their 12-year insurgency, routing a Soviet- and Cuban-backed offensive without South African ground troops or air power.
However, South African Defense Minister Magnus Malan told a Johannesburg news conference that if South African forces had not fought on the side of Savimbi, his guerrilla movement would have been defeated.
Military sources in South-West Africa said a South African-led battalion of black Angolans had suffered heavy losses in the fighting.
Savimbi said weaponry provided by the United States, particularly anti- aircraft missiles, ″has been decisive″ in enabling his National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, to repel an offensive by government forces that lasted from July through October. About 18,000 government troops took part in the battle.
The Marxist government’s forces will not be able to launch a major assault next year, he said, adding that this year’s was the largest in a series of annual attacks on UNITA’s strongholds in the southeastern third of Angola.
Savimbi said he was ″very surprised″ by a South African army statement issued Wednesday saying South African forces had intervened on behalf of UNITA against a force that included Soviet and Cuban troops.
He said South Africa had assisted UNITA in some fashion, but he refused to elaborate and insisted that the support involved neither ground troops nor air power.
Savimbi said South African ground troops were involved in separate actions in Angola against the South-West African People’s Organization, a guerrilla group fighting to end South African administration of neighboring South-West Africa, also known as Namibia.
He suggested South Africa’s generals were attempting to share the credit for UNITA’s success.
UNITA commanders said 1,984 Angolan soldiers, 27 Soviets and 21 Cubans were killed in the offensive and more than 5,000 were wounded, compared to rebel casualties of 155 killed and 662 wounded.
Savimbi said UNITA attacks on retreating battalions were continuing.
″This offensive is over. My commanders are here,″ Savimbi told foreign journalists at his headquarters in Jamba.
Savimbi, who disavows any hope of toppling the government by force, said UNITA’s success might make his enemies more open to power-sharing negotiations. He said he would ask President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya to serve as mediator in an effort to start talks.
South Africa announced today that four of its white soldiers died Monday fighting on behalf of UNITA. But the South African Defense Force did not immediately comment on the report of heavy losses among its Namibia-based 32nd Battalion made up of black Angolans.
Angola has said 230 South African troops have been killed in recent fighting. It has not released casualty figures for its own or allied forces or UNITA.
South African Defense Force chief Jannie Geldenhuys said Wednesday that South African and South-West African troops had fought in Angola with UNITA. It was the first acknowledgement in a decade that South Africa was providing more than supply and transport help to the guerrillas.
Malan’s comments, like the statement issued Wednesday, gave no details on the extent of South African involvement.
For weeks, South Africa military has refused to respond to reports from the Angolan government and Western journalists that South African warplanes and artillery helped UNITA beat back the Angolan offensive.
At the news conference in Jamba, UNITA displayed two Cuban air force officers whose Soviet-made MiG-21 fighter plane was shot down by a U.S.-supplied missile in eastern Angola on Oct. 28.
One of the officers who parachuted to safety, Lt. Col. Manuel Rocas Garcia, is the highest ranking Cuban yet captured by UNITA.
The colonel, although reluctant to answer questions, said he had been treated well. He denied UNITA claims that morale among the more than 30,000 Cubans in Angola was low.
The Angolans and their Soviet and Cuban supporters had been attempting to reach and attack Jamba, Savimbi’s base for control of most of southeastern Angola.
The heaviest fighting occurred last month, when thousands of Angolan troops, led by a Soviet general, engaged UNITA foces along the Lomba River just north of Mavinga, a UNITA-held town.
In a parade Wednesday in Jamba, UNITA displayed 300 Angolan prisoners, some as young as 14, and dozens of military vehicles captured in the recent fighting. These included Brazilian- made trucks and Soviet tanks and mobile rocket launchers.
The Angolan government has not acknowledged that its offensive failed.