The Angolan government and UNITA guerrillas will exchange foreign prisoners, including Russians and Americans, early next month in an unusual gesture foreshadowing a possible settlement between the rival forces, according to a European press report.
The report by Fred Bridgland in The Scotsman, an Edinburgh newspaper, said the exchange will take place in the Zairian capital of Kinshasa on Feb. 7.
Quoting unnamed, African diplomatic sources, Bridgland said the swap will involve two Soviet airmen held by UNITA since their plane was shot down in December 1980 over southern Angola and two American "businessmen" held captive by the Angolan government after making emergency landings there in 1979 and 1980.
The report also said that 23 Portuguese prisoners, some of whom have been held five years, are to be released at the same time by UNITA.
State Department sources said yesterday that they could not validate the reports of such a swap, although requests for information have gone out to U.S. diplomats abroad. Spokesmen said U.S. records list three Americans being held in Angola: Geoffrey Tyler, a private pilot who made an emergency landing there in 1981, and Gary Acker and Gustavo Grillot, who have been held in Angolan prisons as mercenaries since 1976. The press report, however, said Acker and Grillot will not be exchanged.
The Scottish journalist reported that he interviewed UNITA's leader, Jonas Savimbi, on Monday in an African capital he was not permitted to name. Much of his report, although not the exchange data, was attributed to Savimbi.
According to Bridgland, Angola's ruling party has offered to negotiate with UNITA in an effort to bring an end to the civil war, which continues to sap the economic and political strength of that country and which was the justification for the entry of the 20,000 Cuban troops that remain in Angola.
The report said Angolan feelers were brought to Savimbi in the African capital through Portuguese diplomatic channels and that Savimbi was asked to clarify his attitude on a number of issues, should he be willing to consider negotiations.
According to Bridgland, Savimbi confirmed that he has received a message from the Angolan ruling party and said, "I have replied that UNITA is always willing to talk." Savimbi was quoted as saying that UNITA contacts with the ruling party would be made through third-party intermediaries during the next two months.
One informed Washington source said there have been well-documented reports of intermittent contact between the Angolan parties and that "a serious offer" appears to be in the making. Other sources disclaimed any direct knowledge of such dealings, but expressed the belief that Savimbi's comments to Bridgland are one more sign of intense diplomatic maneuvering that is taking place in Angola and other parts of southern Africa.
A settlement of the Angolan civil war would have important impact on the international drive for a negotiated withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia (Southwest Africa), a mineral-rich territory lying between Angola and South Africa. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker met last week with South African officials in London and Angolan officials in Paris in pursuit of such arrangements and to discuss improvement of U.S.-Angolan relations.
According to the Scottish report, Savimbi is returning home from visits to the United States, Western Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a planeload of Soviet-made antiaircraft missiles and European antitank missiles and with several million dollars in new funds.
Savimbi was quoted as saying he is willing to stop attacks on the Benguela Railroad in Angola for six months as a sign of good intentions toward talks.