Monday, Jun. 13, 1977
RHODESIA: Smith Takes a Dangerous New Gamble
Even as Britain and the U.S. continue to press Prime Minister Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia toward accepting black majority rule, "Smithy" lashed out at nationalist guerrillas operating from across the border in Mozambique. The incident could further diminish the chances of a settlement and inflame the situation in southern Africa.
For weeks, Rhodesia's Supreme Military Commander, Lieut. General Peter Walls, had been receiving intelligence reports of a guerrilla force building up in southwestern Mozambique. Faced with a security problem that would further extend his hard-pressed troops, Walls asked Smith for permission to make a punitive raid on Mozambique's Gaza province, a key infiltration and supply route. Smith readily gave him the go-ahead. Last week the first columns of Rhodesian army trucks, carrying some 500 troops, rolled across the Mozambican border shortly after daybreak and headed toward the village of Mapai, 60 miles away. Overhead, Rhodesian air force planes provided cover, while low-flying C-47 Dakotas disgorged teams of paratroopers.
This raid was significantly different from other search-and-destroy missions the Rhodesian military has mounted in its four-year war with the guerrillas. No sooner had the troops crossed the border than the Salisbury government announced the attack—and declared that they would stay in Mozambique as long as necessary to complete the job.
News of the mission was received by many Rhodesian whites with satisfaction; successful or not, the raid was a way of venting their frustrations at living for so long with uncertainty and terror. The international response was anger and outrage. Washington publicly denounced both Smith's government and the raid into Mozambique as illegal. To emphasize the point, South Africa's ambassador to Washington, Donald Sole (who represents Rhodesia's interests), was informed of the Administration's displeasure by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Britain also sent Smith a stern message, and the two countries began drawing up a resolution of condemnation to put before the United Nations Security Council.
Mission Accomplished. Whether or not the warnings had their intended effect, the Rhodesians reported their mission accomplished after five days at Mapai, and packed up to return home. The joint operations command in Salisbury announced that 32 guerrillas had been killed and only one Rhodesian—a pilot who was shot down after taking off from the airstrip at Mapai. For its part, Mozambique reported that it shot down three Rhodesian planes and a helicopter, and engaged the Rhodesian forces in "heavy fighting." Minister of Combined Operations Roger Hawkins denied such claims, as well as Mozambique's announcement that a number of Rhodesian troops had been taken prisoner.
Considering the size and scope of the operation, there was little evidence of any major gains. Even the cache of weapons displayed from the operation turned out to be unconvincing. TIME Correspondent William McWhirter, who landed at the dusty airstrip at Chiredzi in southeastern Rhodesia, reports: "Spread out on two canvas aprons on the brown grass were two small heaps that looked like the remains from a weapons picnic or the last leftovers from some outdoor arms fair. There were a couple of rocket launchers, several assault rifles and ancient carbines, some mortars with rounds. The sad little arrangements were all there was to show from the drama and bravado of the week.
"The Communist-supplied weapons, mainly Soviet, were still wrapped in their wooden packing crates—a reminder of the fresh arsenals flowing into the frontline states. Among the prize exhibits was a deadly 14.5-mm. antiaircraft gun with glistening gold-and red-tipped bullets. There was also a Czech-made land mine of Bakelite, undetectable with any of the usual metal devices used by the army. Like the other arms on display, the weapons were newer than the Rhodesians' equipment."
In an interview with McWhirter, Minister Hawkins insisted that the raid was purely a military operation stemming "from our inherent right of self-defense." But did Smith have political motives in authorizing the mission? Western diplomats noted that the raid began the same morning an Anglo-American negotiating team, headed by British Diplomat John Graham and U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Stephen Low, left Salisbury for the Mozambican capital of Maputo. Their mission: to discuss a possible settlement with Black Nationalist Leader Robert Mugabe, head of the Zimbabwe African National Union and co-chairman with Joshua Nkomo of the Patriotic Front, the joint guerrilla force that is recognized by the frontline states as the sole legitimate liberation movement. Smith opposes U.S.British demands that any settlement include the guerrilla leaders. He wants the negotiators to come around to his own "internal solution"—meaning turning power over to black moderate Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who leads the nonmilitary United African National Council. The timing of the raid, a top Whitehall source told TIME, was "a very strange coincidence. Our assumption [of Smith's sincerity] has been badly shaken."
There was little doubt that Smith hoped the raid and its attendant publicity would boost flagging morale. More than 1,000 whites are leaving Rhodesia each month, fearful both of the expanding civil war and their doubtful future under majority rule. Others who want to stay are convinced that a quick and equitable settlement is necessary. Still, when word trickled out that "the boys" were returning from the supposedly successful raid, many whites were cheered.
Lost Time. Rhodesian blacks were more apprehensive. They recall a similar search-and-destroy operation last August on a U.N.-sponsored refugee camp in Mozambique that reportedly killed some 700 civilians (the Rhodesians claimed to have killed 320 guerrillas). "We fear this place could become like Angola," said a black insurance salesman in Salisbury. "Why can't they all talk? We're frightened of what might happen next." Added a leading black lawyer: "It's an open invitation to [Mozambican President Samora] Machel to get someone to help him. The danger is getting the Russians and the Cubans in. I don't believe the Africans really want them. But Smith has exacerbated the problem, and every minute lost arriving at a settlement is a minute gained for Communism."
Although the mission was humiliating evidence that Rhodesian forces can cross Mozambique's borders any time they choose, Machel's government downplayed the raid as "just another aggression." Mozambique officials believe that Smith was merely trying to up the ante by raising the stakes of Mozambique's support for the guerrillas—and perhaps forcing Maputo to seek outside help. That in turn, they theorized, would justify Smith's seeking help from South Africa. If Smith did have such a Machiavellian motive, he was apparently mistaken. A top aide said that South African Prime Minister John Vorster was "dismayed" by the raid, adding that "the last thing the Prime Minister wants is to see a full-scale Cuban or Nigerian or Somalian involvement to protect Mozambique." Already under fire from the U.S. and other Western powers for his government's apartheid policies, Vorster has enough trouble of his own.