The latest phase of US-mediated negotiations aimed at a settlement in Namibia have gotten off to an acrimonious start. The positions of the two key protagonists in the talks - South Africa and Angola - are sharply divergent. This suggests to close Namibia watchers here that the latest initiative faces at best a long and arduous process.
Still, American officials believe they have made a major stride toward a settlement. They have secured from Angola an acceptance of the ''principle'' that a Namibia settlement must be accompanied by some form of commitment on the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
Both South Africa and the United States have insisted on linking the Cuban issue to the Namibia dispute - a linkage Angola rejected until recently.
In October Angola presented the US with some broad proposals (see side story) regarding a Cuban departure and the end of South African control over Namibia. In early November the US presented these proposals to South Africa, which recently gave the US a set of counterproposals.
US officials were adamant that the substance of both sets of proposals had to remain secret. But in recent weeks the details of the Angolan position leaked out and then were disclosed to the United Nations by the Angolan government.
South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha has lashed out at Angola for violating the secrecy of the negotiations and said the action put a question mark over the ability of Angola to negotiate seriously. Botha did not, however, break off the talks, and further negotiations are expected.
Analysts here believe there is more than posturing to Botha's criticism of of Angola. They say for domestic political reasons, South Africa much prefers the US approach of ''quiet diplomacy,'' and does not like to be seen bargaining directly with Angola. Pretoria is also loathe to involve the United Nations in the talks.
The United Nations has declared South Africa's occupation of Namibia ''illegal.'' And in the past Pretoria has accused the UN of a bias that made ''free and fair'' elections in the territory problematic. South Africa has now dropped its objections to the UN, but its suspicions remain.
South Africa also is dissatisfied with Angola's proposals for a Cuban withdrawal. It is demanding that all the Cubans be sent home. And Pretoria wants the Cubans withdrawn on a much tighter time schedule. The South African proposals call for all the Cubans to be gone 12 weeks after the implementation of the UN plan for Namibian independence. The UN plan calls for a seven month build up toward elections in the territory.
A major question mark still hanging over the talks is the fate of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebel forces within Angola. Many analysts here wonder if a Cuban withdrawal from Angola is feasible while the South African-backed UNITA forces continue to threaten the Angolan regime. Fears of UNITA and of South African intentions could explain Angola's insistence that it be allowed to retain some Cuban forces. The next step in the negotiations is expected to be talks between South Africa and Angola about a separate agreement reached by both countries earlier this year calling for the withdrawal of all South African forces from southern Angola. The process has stalled and Pretoria's troops remain 25 miles inside Angola.
Special correspondent Louis Wiznitzer reports from the United Nations:
Negotiations between Angola and South Africa on the independence of Namibia have entered a new phase.
Optimistic diplomatic analysts believe that major shifts of position in Angola and South Africa are about to occur and that the peace process may lead in a few months to an overall settlement. Others say nothing new has happened: that Angola has simply sent the ball back into South Africa's camp as it has often done before.
''Long, protracted negotiations and a lot of posturing by both sides lie ahead of us,'' says one informed source.
An important development is that Angola, for the first time, has linked the departure of Cuban troops from its territory to phasing out of Pretoria's troops in Namibia.
On paper the new Angolan package sounds good. US sources say ''that we are in an entirely new ball game and that in the next few months a breakthrough will occur.'' Intelligence sources agree, saying:
* A major realignment is about to occur inside Angola, with moderates pushing out the pro-Soviet faction.
* A major, pro-Western shift would follow in Angolan foreign policy. Angola would still insist on Namibia becoming independent - but under a modified, softened UN plan that would put Namibia largely under South African influence. ''Angolans would of course have to persuade other African nations to support the sell-out of SWAPO (the South West Africa People's Organization) in the interest of peace in the region and of Angola's survival'' says a European official - a task that may lie beyond their reach. Other Western officials are much more skeptical.
''Chester Crocker has oozed optimism for the last three years, always suggesting that things were moving fast in the right direction. In fact, last year, the US believed that the Angolan fruit was ripe and about to fall into the American basket. In the end the fruit turned out to be green,'' says one West European foreign minister.
Another diplomat who also tends to rely on political analysis rather than intelligence leaks says that, ''The new Angolan proposals are more detailed and more formal than in the past, but in essence contain nothing new and are as unacceptable to South Africa as they were before. South Africa does not really care about the Cubans in Angola. It does care about Namibia, and does not want the US plan to be implemented because it would lead to a SWAPO takeover. ''South Africa will thus reject the Angolan plan and make counterproposals. This means that we are at the beginning of a long new protracted series of exchanges, with a lot of posturing.''
Fundamentally, this diplomat says, the situation beyond the current diplomatic maneuvering goes like this: 1. The US priority is to bring the Angolan domino back into the Western camp. 2. South Africa's priority is to turn Namibia into a buffer state, nominally independent but in fact under its control. 3. Angola's aim is to gain some time and try to survive among growing economic and military difficulties.