Munhango, Angola — The olive-green-clad rebel commandos began their approach to the town in the late afternoon. Carrying heavy mortars, rocket launchers, and assault rifles, they edged cautiously through the forests and swampy grasslands in three columns.
Occasionally, an officer would whistle softly or gesture with his hand. The men would halt for a while, dropping silently to their haunches. Only the buzzing of insects or the warbling of a bird would carry through the trees.
By midnight, they reached the strategic Benguela Railway, which stretches from Angola's eastern border with Zaire to the coast. Following it for several miles, they came to the outer farmsteads of Munhango, a vital railway junction with some 8,000 inhabitants in the central part of this former Portuguese overseas territory.
The government-controlled town lay quiet. The first roosters began to crow in the chilly morning darkness as the commandos fanned out into the surrounding fields and bushes. There they joined the motionless figures of previously positioned local guerrilla fighters waiting for the signal to attack.
A single rifle shot, it came as the first glimmer of dawn was streaking the horizon. Instantly, an onslaught erupted from the east, sending orange balls of artillery fire and tracers arching over the town. Caught off-guard by this initial diversionary assault, the government forces reacted slowly.
The main attack followed shortly afterward - from the north. As explosions crunched on the ground ahead, more than 1,000 Kalashnikov-armed commandos swept in from the cornfields and banana groves. In less than 45 minutes, Munhango had fallen, its 436-strong garrison killed, captured, or fled.
The capture of Munhango last month by Jonas Savimbi's UNITA forces demonstrates the increasing ability of this rapidly expanding and disciplined liberation movement to make inroads against the Soviet-backed Angolan government. And in the past eight months, UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) has gone aggressively on the offensive.
According to UNITA, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Cuban combat troops and civilian advisers are supporting the regime's own 80,000 troops and militiamen. In addition, some 2,000 Soviets and 1,500 to 2,000 East Germans are in the country, mainly involved in security and communications. (The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates the Cuban involvement to range between 19,000 and 25,000 men.)
Publicly, the Angolan government maintains that the East bloc and Cuban military presence is necessary to counter South African incursions from across the Namibian border. But some Western defense analysts feel the ruling, Marxist-Leninist-oriented Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) would be unable to survive internal opposition without outside communist assistance.
Although a protracted civil war has ravaged this southwest African nation of 6 to 7 million inhabitants since its independence from Portugal in November l975 , it is only in recent months that UNITA has moved so vigorously onto the offensive. The rebels now claim to control at least one-third of the country. Perhaps as much as a second third is under strong guerrilla influence, with rebel troops able to move relatively freely by truck and on foot. Government air attacks have been virtually nonexistent in the southeast for the past two years.
Savimbi supporters have also stepped up urban guerrilla attacks against most towns, including the capital, Luanda. One recent example of anti-government activity in an area hitherto considered secure was the kidnapping last March of 66 Czech development advisers, their families, and 20 Portuguese at the industrial town of Atlo Catumbela in western Angola.
During a recent extensive seven-week tour with the rebels in the southern and central parts of Angola, this reporter visited scores of UNITA-run military bush bases, villages, schools, hospitals, and agricultural centers stretching right up to the Benguela Railway. Additional strongholds are said to exist farther north and to the west.
There was no evidence to suggest the presence or need of UNITA camps inside Namibia (South-West Africa) as alleged by the Luanda government. Dr. Savimbi's own sprawling headquarters, consisting of neatly built wood and straw huts, is located at Jamba in the far southeastern pocket of Angola and roughly 50 miles north of the Namibian frontier.
Also situated near Jamba is UNITA's clandestine communications' center. Using coded messages, the rebels remain in daily contact with all their units and bases over a 900-set two-way radio network. In addition, headquarters monitors all government radio traffic, thus enabling the rebels to constantly adapt their tactics according to communist troop movements.
As far as can be determined, the rebels are gradually forcing the government to relinquish its hold over the remaining handful of besieged provincial towns in the ''liberated'' zones, some of them garrisoned by Cuban troops. Apart from Munhango, this reporter also visited the shattered, crater-strewn ruins of Tempue, formerly Alto Quito, only days after its fall in early April following a month-long blockade.
In the past, UNITA has tried to capture entrenched government positions by storming. On several occasions, however, it suffered severe losses. Now, the rebels prefer to blockade towns by cutting off road links and forcing the government forces to bring in supplies by air.
''This has begun to bear fruit,'' a senior UNITA intelligence officer explained at Savimbi's underground command bunker, a large hall lined with wall charts and maps. ''Through constant bombardment at different times of day, we have, in a number of cases, been able to break their troop morale. They are not as motivated as two or three years ago.''
UNITA forces rarely seek to physically hold captured towns. All strategic targets of economic or military use to the government are sabotaged. Armed with anti-aircraft guns and light artillery, small groups of men are then positioned in the surrounding bush with orders to prevent the government forces from returning.
As for the civilians, they are resettled in nearby UNITA-controlled villages and encouraged to continue farming their fields. In this manner, the rebels can assure themselves of local food supplies, concentrate on local political indoctrination, and render the towns economically useless to the regime.
Present strategy is aimed at infiltrating new regions and bringing as much territory as possible under UNITA control. Nevertheless, Savimbi advocates a political rather than a military solution to the conflict. According to both rebel and West European sources, UNITA representatives have already met with MPLA moderates on at least three occasions in recent months. But other Western analysts remain skeptical that such meetings have occurred.
The rebels hope to strengthen their hand in the event of negotations. In particular, they are attempting to assure complete financial and tactical autonomy by taking over the vast diamond reserves in northern Angola's Lunda district.
Rebel successes have already forced changes in the government's strategic thinking. Four years ago, Cuban ground forces were more or less pulled back from active combat, leaving the heavy fighting up to the FAPLA, the Angolan government soldiers. Then, in 1981, the FAPLA forces were gradually sent back into the trenches around provincial towns to counter rising guerrilla activity. But since the end of last year, Cuban soldiers have increasingly found themselves back in the front lines to bolster the regime.
According to UNITA, Cuban casualties have risen dramatically as a result and morale has deteriorated. Since the start of Havana's military commitment to Angola in 1975 - proportionally about the commitment that the US made in Vietnam - as many as 3,000 Cuban troops may have been killed, say UNITA sources. Western military analysts are unable to give reliable estimates of Cuban casualties but consider the rebel figures ''probably too high.''
The main reason behind UNITA's recent upsurge in military activity is the possibility of a political settlement being reached for Namibia. The thickly bearded rebel leader supports the Reagan administration's concept of linking Namibian independence to a withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. But Savimbi concedes that any regional solution involving the respective withdrawals of South African and Cuban troops from Namibia and Angola could affect his own position, resulting in a loss of aid from the South African government.
Dr. Savimbi makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is beholden to South Africa for a substantial portion of his movement's logistical support. Namibia serves as a vital conduit for gasoline, spare parts, and arms supplies obtained either in Windhoek or from other friendly countries. When China furnished UNITA with 250 tons worth of weapons several years ago, for example, they were channeled into Angola via Namibia.
''It is an uncomfortable relationship,'' says Savimbi. ''But we are fighting for our freedom. If no other country is willig to help us, then we have no option but to turn to the South Africans.''
According to Savimbi, UNITA also cultivates discreet links with at least a dozen black African countries - including several that have publicly attacked him for his links with South Africa. As with Namibia, UNITA maintains officially undeclared representatives in these countries as well as in France, Portugal, Britain, and the United States.
The MPLA, however, accuses UNITA of being nothing more than a ''Trojan horse'' for South Africa. It also persistently brands the rebels either as ''bandits'' or a ''cowardly phantom force.'' Furthermore, Radio Luanda editorials refuse to acknowledge the presence of an effective rebel force in its own backyard. All anti-insurgency campaigns are labeled as ''police'' rather than ''military'' operations.
In many respects, UNITA is run along the lines of a militarized state within a state. Highly efficient, with a sophisticated political, social, and military infrastructure, it is a striking antithesis to the liberation movements found elsewhere in the world. Only the Eritrean People's Liberation Front in Ethiopia appears to come close to UNITA's organizational ability.
Militarily, UNITA claims to have some l5,000 uniformed regular troops and 25, 000 guerrillas under its command.
''But we are not trying to establish a conventional Army. Our main strength is to concentrate on developing a well trained, highly mobile guerrilla force,'' said Dr. Savimbi.
As it stands, UNITA already can boast an elaborate, smoothly-run war machine with qualified officers and specialized units ranging from commandos to engineering and artillery.
According to rebel sources, hundreds of UNITA officers have been sent abroad for training over the past few years. Apart from those with experience gained while serving with the Portuguese armed forces during the colonial era, Morocco seems to have provided the bulk of military training. During the '70s, some also were trained in Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, and several other black African countries. In addition, Saudi Arabia has furnished UNITA with substantial financial backing.
Under President Giscard d'Estaing, French advisers based in Zaire provided specialized technical assistance. To what extent South Africa has granted facilities remains unclear, although judging by the amount of radio communications equipment furnished by Pretoria, the rebels may have received assistance in this field. South Africa provided training assistance to both UNITA and the pro-Western National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) in 1975. To what extent South Africa continues to grant assistance remains unclear. Some observers feel the South Africans are still furnishing such aid. This reporter found no evidence of us military aid.
Since mid-1982, outside training has reportedly come to a halt. Savimbi maintains that his forces now have a sufficiently qualified officer corps capable of training its own men. He also claims that unlike the MPLA and the practically defunct FNLA, his own UNITA has never employed foreign mercenaries or advisers. Nor has it ever conducted any joint operations with South African troops.
While traveling with UNITA, this reporter found no indication of foreign advisers operating with the rebels on Angolan territory.
However, a considerable number of white Portuguese sympathizers, who lived in Angola during the colonial period, are known to be helping UNITA both inside and outside the country.
Dr. Savimbi, an Umbundu (or Ovimbundu), has made special efforts to transcend tribal friction by including members of Angola's eight major ethno-linguistic groups. Sample straw polls among his officers have shown that they range from the Kongos in the Cabinda enclave to the north to the Ambos tribe in the south.
Despite a predominance of Umbundus and Ganguelas among the troops of those bases visited, UNITA officials maintain that both rebel strongholds and sympathizers elsewhere in the country reflect the movement's ethno-linguistic balance. Within UNITA itself, Portuguese remains the neutral language of communication, although among the lower ranks, soldiers tend to converse in the vernacular.
Military service among the UNITA forces is voluntary and with no pay. An average 1,500 men go through basic training courses at boot camps dispersed throughout the bush every three months. Recruits from the outlying ''liberated'' zones may have to walk for as long as two months to reach the main training centers to the south.
As with most UNITA activities, military instruction is highly politicized and patriotic. Officers rigorously train their men in weapons maintenance, marching, drill, and field tactics. Outdoor classes are often interrupted by boisterous outbursts of singing accompanied by slogan-shouting and fist-clenching extolling of Angolan independence or condemnation of ''Soviet-Cuban imperialism'' or ''Soviet expansionism.'' The soldiers live in long wood and straw barracks in the camps or in sheltered dugouts when in the field.
Promising recruits, usually those with some form of basic education, go through a second more specialized training in the communications, intelligence, commando, logistics, and other units. This correspondent even came across a class of candidates for the military band practicing their do-re-me's.
A third training period enables troops with field experience to go through recycling or improvement courses. Guerrillas, on the other hand, receive a limited amount of training and are encouraged to operate as autonomously as possible within their own areas although often in coordination with regular troops.
As a bush army, rebel troops are unexpectedly well equipped. Certain foods such as fou-fou, a grits-like mush that forms the staple diet, are home grown, but some supplies have to be brought in from the outside. All wear leather boots and locally made uniforms - khaki, olive-green, or dark blue depending on their units. One of the workshops visited was turning out 2,000 uniforms a month on a 24-hour basis.
Many of the small arms, primarily AK-47 Kalashnikovs and Portuguese Army issue assault rifles, have been captured. According to UNITA, the US provided some 1,500 World War II carbines in l975; but these are so antiquated that they ''can be used for nothing else but bird hunting.''
Other weapons have been purchased on the international arms market or supplied by friendly nations. There seemed to be no immediate shortage of ammunition or of 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns, 82 mm mortars and SAM-7 missiles.
The rebels also operate well-organized and impeccably clean workshops. Using a variety of generator-run machinery ranging from lathes to drills, mechanics and their teen-age apprentices could be seen overhauling engines and weapons or constructing sophisticated spare parts. Carpenters made chairs, doors, and gun stocks.
Captured guns, many of them badly rusted, were completely cleaned or put back into working order with fittings cannibalized from other weapons. At one major workshop, a chief mechanic had personally devised an elaborate rocket launcher (replete with hand-carved and polished ivory knobs) for missiles taken from helicopter firing pods.
With some 20,000 miles of useable roads and tracks crisscrossing the rebel zones, UNITA also possesses a fleet of more than 200 captured vehicles, most of them of Soviet, Polish, or Czech origin.
Rebel engineers are constantly expanding the road system northward by using heavy trucks to break down trees or constructing catwalks across rivers and swamps. The vehicles are fueled by special tankers sent out from base camps to prearranged rendezvous points in the bush.
There are also a small number of Western-made vehicles purchased from abroad. Similar to the performance of East Bloc vehicles during the l967 and l973 Middle East wars, the Soviet URALs and ZILs tend to function poorly and overheat in the heat of the day.
''They are made for Siberia and not the African bush,'' commented one logistics officer.
Each truck has its own driver, co-driver, and mechanic for which they are fully responsible.
''This is the only way to ensure that equipment is kept in top condition,'' explained Savimbi. ''It is their vehicle and no one else may touch it.''
As a result, engines are kept spotlessly clean and in constant repair. By contrast, every one of the 35-odd trucks abandoned by the government at Munhango were broken down.