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Angolan rebels go on offensive against Soviet-backed regime

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 1983

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.

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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.