Harare — Zimbabwean troops, on the offensive in Mozambique for the first time, have helped President Samora Machel's government secure a startling military success against Mozambican rebels. The Supreme Command Base of the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) was captured in a lightning five-hour strike on Aug. 28 -- only days after a new offensive in the provinces of Manica and Sofala began -- according to the official Mozambican news agency, AIM.
The base, known as Casa Banana, is in the foothills of Gorongoza Mountain, about 60 miles northwest of the Mozambican port of Beira and 90 miles east of Zimbabwe's border. The speed of its capture by paratroopers after bombing raids surprised diplomats and military experts in Harare, who described the base as well-guarded and virtually inaccessible by land in densely wooded terrain. The base's reported fall -- with its airstrip, communications and supplies Mozambican military authorities say could equi p several thousand rebels for two to three years -- was hailed by Mr. Machel as a major victory.
Mozambican journalists who visited Gorongoza rcently said there had been ``hundreds'' of casualties among the MNR, whose numbers are estimated at about 12,000-15,000.
But diplomats said they had since received reports from Mozambique of heavy fighting about 25 miles east of Gorongoza. No details were available.
The reported capture led to the disclosure that Zimbabwean troops have departed from their purely defensive role within Mozambique. The troops have been in Mozambique for the past three years helping guard a 150-mile railway and oil pipeline from Beira to the eastern border town of Mutare and road convoys through Tete Province from Zimbabwe to Malawi.
Although Zimbabwean officials have declined to comment on the numbers or role of the troops in Mozambique, Prime Minister Rubert Mugabe asserted at a press briefing Sept. 7 that ``We have a duty to go to the rescue of Mozambique when Mozambique is in trouble.''
Diplomats noted that Mr. Mugabe felt he owed a debt to Machel, whose country was the base for Mugabe's guerrilla war against white-ruled Rhodesia.
Asked at the briefing about the new strategy, Mugabe said: ``We decided that rather than merely wait . . . to be attacked by the MNR bandits and then offer defense, we should go onto the offensive and try to eliminate, jointly with Mozambique, the bandits from the areas of Manica, Sofala and Tete.''
He added that it was not a single operation and would continue until the total elimination of the rebels, a right-wing group that has been fighting Mozambique's government since independence from Portugal in 1975.
The size of the Zimbabwean force has not been disclosed. Until earlier this year, an estimated 3,400 troops were doing guard duties; diplomats said the numbers increased sharply over the past few weeks. One diplomat estimated that 12,000-15,000 Zimbabwean troops were now committed to the Mozambican operations.