They came, several hundred strong, in the early morning hours to this old Portuguese-built farming town in the rolling hills of north central Angola and caught the sleeping villagers by surprise.

As Josefina Antonio Kaponte tells it, the attackers went on a rampage, ransacking homes and government buildings, blowing up one of the town's two water towers and a gasoline service station and killing civilians indiscriminately.

Kaponte, her aging mother and 30-year-old daughter were ordered to line up outside her mud-brick house while the guerrillas emptied its two rooms of the family's clothes, food and pans. At the last moment, her husband bolted through a rear window and hid in a nearby banana grove.

The last thing Kaponte remembered before she passed out from shock was the sound of gunfire as the guerrillas opened up with their Soviet-made AK47 automatic rifles.

Her mother and daughter died instantly, Kaponte said, and she survived the bullet that ripped through her abdomen.

The attack on Camabatela began at 4:30 in the morning, and by the time the guerrillas left four hours later, 107 villagers lay dead, including the Methodist pastor, Diogo Pascoal Antonio, and four of his children, according to local authorities. Later, 13 of the 75 wounded who were taken to the hospital at Uige died from wounds inflicted by bullets, machetes and knives.

At least seven, and probably many more, of those who died belonged to a 30-man village militia of youths and other able-bodied men who managed to protect one water tower and several parts of the town from being overrun.

By all available accounts here -- from villagers, from the Catholic priests living in a nearby mission and from government officials -- the massacre at Camabatela on Feb. 8 was the work of guerrillas fighting under the banner of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

For the Reagan administration, which in March began providing American arms to UNITA, Savimbi's guerrillas are heroic anticommunist "freedom fighters" dedicated to establishing a democracy in Angola and eliminating the Soviet and Cuban influence there.

To the people of Camabatela, however, UNITA guerrillas are simply known as kawachas (roosters, a symbol on the UNITA flag), or "terrorists" and "puppets" of the South African government, which serves as the de facto government in neighboring Namibia, a vital launching ground for guerrilla and South African troop incursions into Angola. Villagers say the guerrillas have brought misery and economic paralysis to this agriculturally rich coffee- and banana-growing region.

Jeremias Chitunda, head of UNITA's delegation in Washington, denied that the rebel forces had killed or terrorized civilians in Camabatela. He said that about 90 UNITA rebels had driven out the government troops stationed there and that, during the fighting, 40 soldiers were killed and 11 rebels died. UNITA rebels stayed for three days. A few days after they left, government troops returned to avenge their defeat, he said.

"They killed and tortured a lot of civilians to intimidate the population, to get as much information as possible concerning UNITA, and to prepare the stage for their own version of what happened," Chitunda said. "It was a carefully orchestrated ploy."

If UNITA guerrillas carried out the massacre here in Camabatela, their motive is still being debated by the survivors.

Mario Benjamin, the assistant commissar, or mayor, of Camabatela, is sure that UNITA was responsible. He believes the guerrillas were "trying to show to the people that the government cannot defend them" and to "create a big confusion" so they can "force people to go into the woods with them."

In an interview, the Army chief of staff, Col. Antonio dos Santos Ndalu, accused UNITA of assaulting villages where there are only civilians and no soldiers to defend them. "We can't be in every village in a country this size. It's impossible," he said.

A half-dozen residents interviewed during a two-hour visit to the town all told similar stories of being rousted from their beds and ordered out of their homes. They said they then stood helplessly as the guerrillas hauled away their animals, food and clothes.

The killing of civilians appeared to be random, witnesses said. Antonia Manuela Pedro escaped death because she was sleeping in a nearby field guarding the family crops. When she heard the shooting, she ran back to the town. There she found the body of her husband, one of their children and her husband's sister. Two other children -- a baby she had slung on her back on the day of a reporter's visit and 4-year-old Pedro Antonio -- survived, although Pedro was slashed with a knife during the ordeal.

Townspeople said some died trying to flee, others fell as the guerrillas broke into their homes and still others, like Kaponte's family members, were lined up outside their homes and gunned down.

Camabatela is close to the Dembos Forest, which was a stronghold of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) when it was fighting against the Portuguese colonial army from 1961 to 1974. The town's 5,800 residents were a mixture of members of the Kimbundu tribe, who strongly support the MPLA government in Luanda, and the Bakongo tribe, who are divided in their loyalties.

Both the government and UNITA are vying intensely today for the support of the northern Bakongos, whose rich coffee-growing homelands have now become a battleground between the central government forces and Savimbi's guerrillas.

UNITA partisans operating in this region are mostly from other tribes whose homelands are hundreds of miles to the south and east. The guerrillas sustain themselves, according to the allegations made in this village and by government officials, by pillaging food and supplies.

According to government officials, the guerrillas also force village youths to carry supplies and to fight as UNITA soldiers.

Luanda government officials say UNITA rebels often attack villages defended by poorly armed militiamen or small Army garrisons. They allege that UNITA forces have carried out numerous massacres, although few as large as the one here. The officials complain that westerners refuse to believe their allegations. Government Restricts Alleged Sites

But if there have been numerous massacres, the government has failed to gather and present convincing evidence to the outside world.

The government rarely has allowed reporters to visit alleged massacre sites. This reporter was the first outside journalist allowed to visit Camabatela and interview survivors, more than five months after the event.

The visit was permitted in an obvious effort to convince the American press that Savimbi's guerrillas have committed atrocities and are not worthy of U.S. support.

Part of this effort includes a government film that recorded, on the day of the alleged massacre, the carnage at Camabatela.

It is a grisly documentary. There are close-ups of badly slashed and mutilated bodies, fatal gunshot wounds and the women and children who were slain. The film's sound track recorded the wailing lament of a village woman standing watch over a row of bodies.

The film was shown on Angolan state television. The government also produced a booklet of photos from Camabatela to hand out to visitors.

Western diplomats and other foreigners based in Luanda say they believe UNITA has been responsible for a number of atrocities committed against the civilian population. But they add that they usually are unable to confirm government allegations, due to restrictions on travel to the interior.

Diplomats say they gather accounts from western relief workers, businessmen and other foreigners working in the interior who hear or see evidence of alleged UNITA atrocities on an irregular basis.

Thus, there is no independent confirmation available for most of the government allegations contained in a 20-page list -- handed out by the ruling party's information department to visiting correspondents -- of UNITA-initiated attacks against villages from January to June of this year. In 11 incidents, 30 or more "civilians" allegedly were killed. One hundred or more persons were said to have died in three of the attacked villages -- at Caconda on Jan. 27, Balombo on Jan. 31 and at Camabatela on Feb. 8.

One westerner who said he had seen evidence of an earlier massacre is German businessman Chris R. Hellinger, an entrepreneur who is trying to reopen a diamond mine at Canfunfo in eastern Angola.

In a Feb. 3 letter to President Reagan, in which he pleaded not to send any U.S. aid for Savimbi, Hellinger said that he "personally saw a mass grave of over 280 dead people" who he said had been massacred by UNITA forces during an attack on the mining town in late 1984.

"I mention this to you Mr. President not for propaganda or other reasons but because I personally have seen this destruction and my company and my staff have been involved in these specific attacks," Hellinger said in his letter. Devastating Land-Mine Campaigns

Other wanton deeds for which UNITA guerrillas are blamed by both the Luanda government and foreign relief agencies are the injuries inflicted on thousands of peasants by land mines.

UNITA officials allege that the Angolan Army also sows land mines in disputed areas.

The mines are planted by the hundreds in village farmlands, dirt trails and roads in the north, and particularly in the south-central highlands of Angola.

In the highland provincial capital of Huambo, the Geneva-based International Red Cross has opened a factory to manufacture artificial limbs and an out-patient service to train land-mine victims how to use them. Each month, 60 Angolans at a time come to be fitted for artificial feet and legs.

But the number of new land-mine victims increases by more than 50 every month, according to Gerard Peytrignet, assistant Red Cross director in Luanda. Two other factories to manufacture artificial limbs are being planned to cope with the demand.

In the Huambo region, where the fighting has been the fiercest and gone on the longest, there are 6,000 to 8,000 victims wearing, or waiting to get, an artificial limb. Countrywide, the number of war-maimed Angolans waiting for artificial limbs is 23,000, according to Ndalu.

The main reason for this unusually high number of maimed people, according to U.N. officials and western diplomats stationed in Luanda, is the attempt by UNITA to disrupt food production in government-controlled areas of the country as part of a larger campaign to bring the economy to a halt and thereby force the central government to negotiate with it.

Because antipersonnel mines have been planted in the fields used to grow staple and export crops and on the paths leading to those fields from the villages, peasants sooner or later abandon their plots and flee to the towns and cities for food and protection.

"Heavy injuries, especially of the lower extremities, are caused by the systematic use of antipersonnel mines dug into the fields and rural access roads," said Gerd Merrem, the chief U.N. representative, in a February report on the situation in Angola.

His report did not publicly accuse UNITA of being responsible for planting the mines. But U.N. officials and western diplomats say privately that they believe the mining is an attempt by Savimbi's guerrillas to paralyze the country's economy.

In Washington, Chitunda denied allegations that UNITA used violence as a tactic against civilians, or that it planted mines in an effort to sabotage food production. "It is absolutely inaccurate," Chitunda said. "We cannot afford to harass or create insecurities in the population in the countryside or anywhere else because they remain the only source of our support." He said UNITA sought to win rural support by providing clothing, salt, health care and other goods and services the government could not supply.

Chitunda discounted other charges made by western diplomats and relief workers, saying they did not have first-hand knowledge of specific events and were unable to verify reports from the countryside.

If the widespread use of land mines is part of UNITA's strategy, there is bountiful evidence that it is working. Food production has been falling steadily. Only 300,000 tons of food, less than half the nation's needs, were produced last year, and crops this year are expected to yield no more than 240,000 tons.

At a meeting in April of potential donors for an emergency assistance program, the Luanda government put the number of "totally destitute and mutilated persons" needing food at 600,000, an increase of 100,000 over a year ago. It warned that the figure probably would have to be revised upward. It also asked for help in feeding the 2 million people now crowded into the country's urban centers, half of them around the capital.

The United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa has included Angola on its list of the most severely affected nations on the continent, and the Luanda government has appealed to the international community for $93 million in relief assistance.

A U.N. official in Luanda said there had been little response so far to the new, larger Angolan request for emergency aid. In part, he said, the government had been slow to prepare its request and donors had not had time to respond.

Even if the aid comes, however, it is not clear that supplies can be distributed into the interior. The Red Cross has 5,000 tons of food in the port of Lobito but cannot transport it inland by train or road because the government cannot spare the manpower to provide a military escort.

Meanwhile, the government has halted Red Cross relief flights to the central highlands until further notice because of military operations there.

Next: Savimbi's South African connection.