Key Town's Fall Near, Angolan Rebels Assert

Times Staff Writer

Angolan rebels said Wednesday that they are driving government forces from the strategic town of Cuito Cuanavale in southeastern Angola and are on the verge of a significant victory, but the government denied that the town was in danger of falling.

The town has been under siege for a month by rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Its fall, expected by rebel commanders within a few days, would be a major military and political setback for the Marxist government in Luanda.

Its loss would not only deprive the government of its principal base for attacking the headquarters of UNITA, as the rebel movement is known, but also dramatize its eroding control of the country.

But President Jose Eduardo dos Santos said Wednesday that the government still holds Cuito Cuanavale and is determined to keep it in the face of what he described as a concerted offensive by South African, rather than UNITA, forces to capture the stronghold.

President Confident

"The situation is difficult, but the Angolan armed forces have it under control," Dos Santos told reporters in Luanda. "We are in the process of repulsing the South African attacks, and we are convinced that we are capable of facing this new threat."

The loss of Cuito Cuanavale--widely expected by Western military observers despite Dos Santos' statement--could add significant impetus to a new diplomatic initiative now gathering momentum in southern Africa with the goal of promoting peace in Angola, independence for neighboring Namibia and eventually the peaceful resolution of the prolonged crisis in South Africa itself.

Chester A. Crocker, assistant secretary of state for Africa, arrived in Luanda on Wednesday for three days of talks with Angolan officials, who have said they would discuss the accelerated withdrawal of 40,000 Cuban troops there in return for South African steps toward the long-delayed guarantees of Namibian independence and regional security.

Diplomatic Moves

In a series of related moves, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a private letter last week to South Africa's President Pieter W. Botha about the situation in the region, Nigeria dispatched a special envoy to Luanda after Thatcher's visit there earlier this month, Kenya and Zambia have reiterated their willingness, along with Nigeria, to mediate in the Angolan conflict and Botha renewed Pretoria's offer of a regional security pact.

This week, Franz Josef Strauss, leader of West Germany's right-wing Christian Social Union and a special envoy of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, met with Botha in South Africa, with Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano in Maputo and with UNITA's president, Jonas Savimbi, at an undisclosed location to press for an international conference on southern Africa.

Strauss, who met earlier with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, told reporters that he views Moscow as tiring of the prolonged conflicts in the region. The Kremlin is ready under certain conditions, Strauss said, to accept political solutions, specifically in Angola, rather than further fighting.

Although two Angolan government brigades and elements of a third continue to fight along the Cuito River against the advancing UNITA units, the rebels say all commanders, logistics and support personnel, including Soviet and Cuban advisers, pulled out of the town over the weekend and retreated about 16 miles northwest to the village of Nancova.

The town's vital airfield, for weeks the only source of resupply, has reportedly been destroyed by artillery and rocket attacks, much of the town is said to have been leveled in a continuing bombardment and UNITA guerrillas claim to have prevented most convoys from reaching Cuito Cuanavale.

"We are half in control of Cuito Cuanavale now," Tito Chingunji, UNITA's foreign secretary, said in Washington. "We still have to clean up, but they won't be able to continue this resistance in the face of the pressure our battalions are exerting. . . .

"We want to make a point of Cuito Cuanavale because it is a very important town, very strategic, both for the (government) and for UNITA. There is no doubt that the capture of Cuito Cuanavale will represent a radical change in the conduct of this war, and quite possibly this will help bring it to a rapid conclusion."

The loss of Cuito Cuanavale, one of the few towns the government has held in the third of the country that UNITA has declared a "liberated area," should persuade the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and its Soviet and Cuban backers of the need for a negotiated resolution of the 12-year-old war, Chingunji said.

Denies Town Lost

But an Angolan government spokesman in Luanda emphatically denied that Cuito Cuanavale has fallen or been abandoned. "You can be sure that Cuito Cuanavale has not been taken," Maj. Carlos Dias declared. "The Angolan armed forces are strengthening their positions. There is no way that the enemy will take Cuito Cuanavale."

Angolan officials acknowledged earlier, however, that the air force had been pulled back from Cuito Cuanavale because of the danger to its aircraft, that remaining civilians had been evacuated from the town and that "some of the most intense combat" of the long civil war was now under way around it.

UNITA laid siege to Cuito Cuanavale, about 190 miles north of Angola's border with Namibia, after defeating a three-month government offensive. That offensive, the biggest ever attempted, was launched from the town and aimed at Jamba, the rebels' headquarters just north of the border.

The capture of Cuito Cuanavale, or its destruction if it should prove too difficult to hold, not only would substantially reduce the threat to Jamba but increase UNITA's ability to press its guerrilla war in other areas of the country.

Luanda has accused South Africa of assisting UNITA in the Cuito Cuanavale attack, deploying as many as 6,000 troops in southern Angola, giving the rebels air cover and providing heavy artillery support in the siege.

South African defense headquarters in Pretoria has refused to comment, neither confirming nor denying participation except to mock Angolan claims of inflicting serious losses. But South Africa has made little secret of its broad, continuing support for UNITA and Savimbi, its president.

UNITA also receives $15 million a year in U.S. arms, mostly anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, under the Reagan Administration program to support anti-Communist groups in regional conflicts.

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