JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South African troops, fighting on the side of rightist guerrillas in the Angolan civil war, recently clashed in a major air and tank battle with Soviet and Cuban forces supporting the government there, the South African defense headquarters reported Wednesday.
Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys, the South African defense chief, said that his troops recently fought a "limited action" against the Cuban combat units and Soviet advisers in southeast Angola when they intervened in support of the Angolan government's offensive against the rebel rightists.
Geldenhuys' statement, while vague in detail, acknowledged explicitly that South African troops were fighting along with guerrillas loyal to Jonas Savimbi, the UNITA leader, and that Pretoria would commit sufficient forces to counter Soviet and Cuban operations in the area in the future.
With virtually all parties, from the government in Luanda to UNITA rebels, from Washington to Moscow, searching increasingly for a negotiated resolution of a war that neither side appears able to win, diplomats here said that the reported defeat of not only the government offensive but also of a Soviet-Cuban task force could become the foundation for serious peace talks.
"Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's policy in places like Afghanistan and Angola seems to be, if you cannot win it quickly on the battlefield, then you better thrash it out at the negotiating table," a West European ambassador commented in Pretoria.
"And that may be the ultimate result of this victory the South Africans are claiming--negotiations that finally move forward toward a solution."
$1 Billion in Soviet Arms
The Angolan government's 18,000-man offensive, mounted with an estimated $1 billion worth of Soviet arms and two years in preparation, was halted in mid-October by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, known as UNITA, according to military sources here.
The Soviet general commanding the operation then reportedly put a special Soviet-Cuban task force into the battle in what these sources described as a desperate attempt at a breakthrough. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, there are about 37,000 Cuban troops, logistics personnel and technicians and nearly 1,000 Soviet military advisers in Angola.
The South Africans, who had confined their combat support for UNITA to long-range artillery bombardments and intermittent air attacks, moved quickly with substantial forces to block the new thrust, according to these sources, and in heavy fighting they forced the Soviet and Cuban troops to retreat.
"In recent days, elements of the South African Defense Forces and the South-West Africa Territory Force were compelled to take limited action against surrogate forces . . . in southeast Angola," Geldenhuys said in his statement.
"Russians and Cubans, using tanks, sophisticated ground-to-air missiles, fighter aircraft including MIG-23s and attack helicopters, entered the battle after (Angolan government forces) were badly beaten by UNITA.
"As a result of these setbacks, they withdrew from the area to regroup. Russian- and Cuban-backed Angolan forces are desperately trying to capture Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola, and therefore they pose a very real threat to UNITA's position in the territory."
Defense Ministry spokesmen, citing "tactical and security reasons," adamantly refused Wednesday to provide further information on the date, the precise location of the clash, the forces involved and the casualties.
But foreign military analysts and diplomats, studying recent communiques from both the government and UNITA, concluded that the battle apparently occurred in the past 10 days in an area north of Mavinga in Cuando Cubango province in southeast Angola with the government troops retreating, along with the Cuban and Soviet task force, northwest across the Lomba River back to Cuito Cuanavale, their most forward major base.
There was no immediate comment from Luanda or Moscow, both of which earlier had accused Pretoria of deep involvement in southern Angola, or from UNITA, which is currently celebrating its own victory in what Savimbi had billed as the biggest battle of the war.
The Marxist government in Luanda has repeatedly accused Pretoria of sending as many as eight battalions into southern Angola to support UNITA, and it has reported several major clashes in the past two months, though none of the size and character disclosed on Wednesday.
"The defense force's action is in line with the policy of the South African government to protect its own interests wherever or whenever necessary," Geldenhuys said. "The defense force will therefore continue to act for as long as Russian and Cuban forces intervene in southeast Angola."