• U.S.

South Africa: Untimely Raid

3 minute read

Pretoria strikes again

Even by the efficient standards of the South African military, the operation was brutal. After dawn, 43 heavily armed troops of South Africa’s seasoned, mostly black 32nd Battalion were airlifted across the Namibian border into the rocky terrain of the Cambeno valley, some 15 miles away in the southwestern corner of Angola. Then, supported by helicopter gunships, they destroyed a secret, unfortified supply base manned by an estimated 250 guerrillas of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). The toll: 201 guerrillas killed. Only three South African soldiers were lost.

It was the largest South African military venture into Angola since the mission last August that yielded abundant, but unsurprising, evidence of Soviet support for SWAPO. The guerrillas have been waging a bush war for 15 years to win independence for Namibia, or South West Africa, a territory still administered by South Africa in defiance of United Nations resolutions. According to the South Africans, the latest raid was a response to the gradual stockpiling of mostly Soviet arms and equipment to replace those lost in previous South African forays. Among the spoils: 90 Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifles, several SA-7 missiles and hundreds of grenades and land mines. In addition, the South Africans captured a large cache of foodstuffs, including tins of corned beef from Zimbabwe, which they displayed as evidence that SWAPO is receiving aid from the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. Said Major General Charles Lloyd, commander of the Namibia-based South African Defense Force: “The buildup shows the clear intention of SWAPO and the Soviet Union to continue the war.”

The South African raid came at an awkward moment for the five Western “contact states”—the U.S., Britain, France, West Germany and Canada—that began talks in London last week to iron out final problems in the first phase of a settlement that would guarantee Namibian independence. The main stumbling block: SWAPO’S reluctance to go along with complex election procedures designed to protect Namibia’s 90,000 whites (out of a population of 1 million).

The new show of South African aggressiveness was sure to complicate the negotiations further, though Pretoria denied the raid was deliberately timed for that purpose. In Washington, the State Department stressed that the raid “underlines again the urgency of moving toward a settlement on the Namibia issue.” But even Administration officials conceded that Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s hope for a settlement by the end of this year was unduly optimistic.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com