Rebel-held southern Angola
A group of Czech civilians captured nearly two months ago by Angolan anticommunist forces has reached a major guerrilla base here some 100 miles north of the Namibian border.
The 38 men - who came to this country as advisers on a hydroelectric and paper mill development for the Angolan government - trekked into the camp after antigovernment guerrillas had forced them to walk more than 800 miles through difficult mountainous terrain, swamps, and forest.
Another 28 Czechs and 20 Portuguese - part of the same group captured in the March 12 guerrilla attack on the Alto Catumbela hydoelectric and paper mill complex - are expected to arrive at the base in three or four weeks with their captors, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi. This group of hostages includes women and children.
Tired, heavily bearded, and tanned, the Czechs told visiting reporters at the bush stronghold that the rebels had asked them to go ahead of the main body of hostages to prepare for its arrival. Angolan government troops have been searching for the hostages since the attack occurred.
The prisoners, who had been split into three groups after their capture, were often obliged to backtrack and make detours to avoid ambushes by Cuban and Angolan government troops. They said they had also been asked to assist in any negotiations for their eventual release.
''It was an exhausting and at times frightening experience,'' said Alexander Ivan, a translator and documentation specialist who acted as spokesman for the group several hours after their arrival last weekend. ''In the past three days, we have hardly slept at all. But if our presence helps speed up our release, then we are glad to have done it.''
Both UNITA and the Czechs say the rebels attacked Alto Catumbela and some 600 government troops at dawn on March 12 with mortars, rockets, and assault weapons.
Fighting lasted less than 11/2 hours. Lt. Col. Mario Kanhali, guerrilla commander in charge of the operation, says that roughly 30 government soldiers were killed, compared with only 1 dead on the UNITA side. About a dozen soldiers and local militiamen were captured. The rest fled into the bush.
Throughout the fighting the Czech and Portuguese civilians remained in their homes. ''Our houses were shot to pieces and we were very fortunate to have emerged without a scratch,'' Mr. Ivan said. Guerrilla commanders said that none of the Czechs tried to fight back.
The prisoners said the guerrillas then moved through the town, collecting the advisers and families.
''They shook hands with us, told us who they were, and said that we would be taken into the nearby mountains,'' said Mr. Ivan. ''There was no brutality.''
Some of the Czechs, however, complained they did not have time to put on proper clothing or shoes.
Colonel Kanhali said that his forces had not been aware Czech advisers were employed at the complex. ''Our main objective was to destroy all economic targets,'' he said. The hostages were taken along for ''security reasons.''
The column of prisoners, accompanied by more than 1,200 regular UNITA troops and guerrillas, left before noon on the same day.
'' There was little food, and some of the women had to be carried on stretchers when they got weak,'' said Mr. Ivan.
At first, Soviet-built MIG jets and helicopters attacked parts of the column, but rebel intelligence helped guide the column away from government ambushes.
Savimbi has offered to exchange the bulk of the 28 Czech men for captured underground UNITA leaders and other political prisoners in government jails. A further group would be exchanged for seven British mercenaries also interned by the Luanda regime for having fought alongside Holden Roberto's National Front for the Liberation of Angola, a now virtually defunct movement whose forces had played an important role during the anti-Portuguese colonial war.
Savimbi added that his group has been asked by ''interested parties'' to exchange one of the Czechs, a doctor, for jailed French physician Philippe Augoyard of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale in Afghanistan.