Rhodesian troops ended their five-day raid against rebel bases in neighboring Mozambique today, amid indications the strike may have put in serious jeopardy efforts to settle Rhodesia's 11-year-old constitutional crisis.
The Rhodesian commander of the operation that destroyed a series of key bases in southern Mozambique used by black nationalists who are fighting Prime Minister Ian Smith's white Rhodesian government said the troops were withdrawn because their mission was completed.
Although Smith today termed the raid "very successful," it could not have come at a more delicate time for the troubled southern Africa territory. It began in the midst of the latest Anglo-American effort to find terms for a transfer of power from Smith's government to a black majority.
The fear of some observers here is that the raid will serve only to anger black nationalists and cause them to balk at further, indirect negotiations. Smith said today, however, he thought the action would have "no effect at all" on attempts to settle the dispute.
Rhodesian officials said the air and ground attack, which drew strong international criticism, killed 32 rebels and destroyed four bases and a "considerable amount" of arms, equipment and supplies used by the Soviet-backed forces of the Zimbabwe African National Union liberation movement.
One of the bases, the town of Mapai 60 miles inside Mozambique, was captured by the Rhodesians Monday and held until today's withdrawal.
It was widely believed here that international pressure, channeled through South Africa, played a major role in the withdrawal. There were warnings from the United States and Britain that Rhodesia should pull out its troops or face stern, unspecified consequences.
Many Western diplomats in Africa feel that one of the Smith government's prime aims in carrying out repeated incursions into Mozambique is to provoke Mozambique into calling for help from Cuba and the Soviet Union. That would strengthen Rhodesia's own bid for backing from South Africa and the United States in its fight.
The raid that ended today began last Sunday and was the third strike into Mozambique since last August. Although the first two raids killed several hundred rebels, Gen. Peter Walls, commander of the Rhodesian operation, said the latest raid was an important one because it struck at key administrative bases of the rebels.
Walls vehemently denied that his 700-man force withdrew after contact with Mozambique troops near Mapai.
The Mozambique News Agency claimed that Rhodesian commandos had been forced to withdraw after "intensive" fighting - although they said Rhodesian fighter planes continued to bomb civilian targets inside Mozambique.
"Enemy action has now been reduced to aerial bombing of railway stations, farms, schools and the population of the region," Radio Mozambique alleged again today, adding that three Rhodesian jets and one helicopter had been shot down during the conflict.
The ground situation is now "completely under the control of Mozambique armed forces," the statement claimed. The government radio also claimed that Mozambique had captured some Rhodesian troops.
Walls said, however, that "care had been taken to avoid areas where there was known to be an FPLM (Mozambique army) presence" and that the only contact had been with Rhodesian guerrillas.
The Rhodesian government today has also denied bombing civilian centers in Mozambique. A military communique did acknowledge yesterday that a Rhodesian soldier died when an air force plane took off from Mapai.
Smith and Walls both said the operation essentially was a defensive one.
"In order to adequately defend our people we had to go across and eliminate them (the guerrillas) in their bases, so it was a defensive exercise," Smith said. "There was nothing aggressive about it."
Walls said the raid "would lead directly to saving the lives of many black villagers living in tribal trustlands in the southeastern part of Rhodesia." About 90 per cent of the rapidly-escalating conflict's victims - estimated at over 1,100 - have been black.
(Reuter reported that in Brussels President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, which Rhodesia claims also permits rebels to put bases in its territory, said his army would strike back inside Rhodesian territory if his country is attacked.
(Kaunda, in Brussels for a meeting, told a press conference that "if he (Smith) has the right of hot pursuit into neighboring countries, then Zambia has the same right.")
The Rhodesian forces crossed into southern Mozambique just a few hour after a four-member Anglo-American team finished the first series of talks with officials of the white minority government.
The team left Sunday morning for Maputo, the Mozambique capital.
During their three days of talks, the team - headed by U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Steven Low and British envoy John Graham - found the main stumbling block to be qualifications for voting. The government is willing to extend the current franchise qualification - varied combinations of eudcational standards and income or property ownership - but is balking at one man, one-vote as demanded by U.S. and British governments and some of the black nationalist leaders.
But despite the cool reception in Salisbury the Low-Graham group left before the military communique on the raid Sunday - saying they were still optimistic that a deal could be worked out.
Foreign Minister P. K. Van Der Byl attempted to justify the "hot pursuit" action by comparing it with Britain's "304 border incursions . . . to strike at Irish Republican Army terriorists operating inside northern Ireland," and "Britain's preemptive strike" against the Yemeni support of the terrorist movement in Aden.
The Rhodesian response is not likely to help the situation. Tensions on both sides of the dispute have been raised to a new peak at what could be a turning point - politically or militarialy - for Rhodesia.