Claiming that their 12-day incursion into Angola had dealt a severe blow to the guerrilla war effort of the South-West Africa Peoples' Organization (SWAPO), South African military officials said Monday they killed 1,000 people during the operation.
The death toll estimate, more than twice what had been previously reported, was compiled from body counts and interrogation of 38 prisoners, Army chief Lt. Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys told a pool of foreign and local reporters during a special briefing at Oshakati in northern Namibia.
He said it would be "difficult to say" how many of the dead were Angolan government troops and how many were guerrillas of SWAPO, with which South Africa is waging a 15-year-old bush war over the disputed territory of Pretoria-run Namibia.
South African Brig. Gen. Rudolf Badenhorst told reporters Aug. 29 that 450 people had been killed in the incursion, called Operation Protea, and that 60 percent of them were Angolan soldiers.
The South Africans lost only 14 men in the 125-mile-deep incursion, which ended Sept. 4. Two of them were crew members of an Alouette-3 helicopter shot down near the town of Mongua, the South Africans said.
Two "regimental groups," or an estimated 4,000 troops, were used in the operation, they said.
Meanwhile, the state-run Angolan news agency ANGOP reported Monday that Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos sent Finance Minister Ismael Martins to Libya with a message to its leader, Muammar Qaddafi. But there was no confirmation from the Angolan government that Martins is requesting military aid from Qaddafi to fight the South Africans.
Several African states met Friday in Lagos, Nigeria to discuss ways to help Angola resist South African incursions. Prior to the meeting, dos Santos said he had received offers of aid from several African countries.
Western diplomats have expressed fears that the South African incursion, itself an escalation of the war, may breed further escalation as Angola seeks outside aid to strengthen its defenses.
The United States is leading a five-nation effort to get a peace agreement between SWAPO and South Africa that will culminate in independence for Namibia.
Included in 3,000 tons of captured equipment valued at $214 million that the South Africans carried back to Namibia were 13 Soviet-made T34 and PT76 tanks, 100 SAM7 missile launchers and 300 vehicles. The South Africans said they destroyed 53,000 gallons of gasoline they found stored underground in Angola.
Geldenhuys confirmed that there had been fierce resistance from Angolan soldiers garrisoned about 60 miles inside Angola at Xangongo -- the first such opposition the South Africans have encountered in Angolan operations.
Reporters were shown two maps of Xangongo, said to have been drawn by Soviet military advisors, which showed the deployment of Angolan government and SWAPO bases side-by-side around the town. Geldenhuys admitted the South Africans were aware, prior to the assault, of this proximity and that their planning had encompassed the contingency of resistance from Angolan forces.
The South Africans also released the identities of 20 Soviet advisors who they said were stationed at the Angolan towns of Ngiva and Xangongo assisting SWAPO and Angolan troops. The information was based on captured documents, they said. Four of the Soviets, among them two women, were killed in a gunfight with the South Africans and a fifth was captured.
But Geldenhuys also admitted that evidence of direct Soviet engagement in the combat operations of SWAPO guerrillas was "still only circumstantial."
The Angolan government has repeatedly denied the existence of SWAPO bases or SAM missile sites in southern Angola.
Geldenhuys said Operation Protea, which takes its name from the national flower of this country, had set back SWAPO's war effort about a year. Guerrilla activity inside Namibia had dropped off since the incursion, which lasted from Aug. 24 to Sept. 4, and could be expected to continue at a lower level, he said.
"Taking the organization as a whole, it could take SWAPO a year or more to recover, although we may read of terror acts committed by specialist groups such as sabotage groups, who make up only about 10 percent of SWAPO," the Army chief said.