Angola Avante: The most mined area in Angola, Part 1

There are two sites in Angola that vie for the unenviable title of “most mined area.”  The first, which we consider today, is the town of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola.  The second, which will be discussed in a future post, is Moxico Province in the east of the country.

Without hyperbole, Cuito Cuanavale was the site of one of the most important battles of the Cold War and the largest tank battle in Africa after World War II.  In 1987 and 1988, Cuban and South African forces fought a months-long siege along the Cuito River in support of their respective clients, the MPLA-led Angolan government and the UNITA rebels. While Angolan forces comprised a significant portion of the combatants, the real powers were Cuban and South African regulars.  To this day, South African tanks remain on the field of battle, rusting reminders of the battle.  The defeat and withdrawal of the South African forces led to the independence of Namibia and the fall of the Apartheid government in Pretoria.  The collapse of the Soviet Union, and loss of support from Cuba and Soviet Bloc states, encourage the MPLA government to negotiate a treaty with UNITA which fell apart shortly after contested elections in 1992.

All parties to the battle used anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines.

Cuban and Angolan forces laid “over four hundred anti-vehicle booby traps mad with BM-21 rockets and MiG bombs for a total of over fifteen thousand mines.  Attempts were made to clear the extensive anti-tank and antipersonnel minefields around Cuito Cuanavale at various times to prepare for [South African] attacks.”

According to a deminer with the HALO Trust:

“One of the mine belts was laid by the South African Army over eight months, from April 1988. It is an extensive cordon that runs for several kilometers to the east of town, blocking land from cultivation and other useful purposes, and preventing safe transit. It continues to claim victims. Professionally laid by military engineers, it consists of minimum-metal mines which are very difficult to detect, and there is also evidence of booby traps and other unpleasant surprises.”

The South African minefields follow a predictable pattern of a “center row of antitank mines five meters apart protected by two antipersonnel mines nearby in the ten and two o’clock positions towards the likely approach.  The antitank mines were fitted with an antilifting device and two rows of antipersonnel mines a few meter on either side.  Some antipersonnel mines were connected by detonation cord to claymores that would explode and disperse numerous ball bearings for maximum havoc.”  Similar mine-laying patterns are in evidence in Zimbabwe where the Rhodesian forces laid mines along the border with Mozambique.

At least one of the South African tanks destroyed and left on the field of battle was the victim of a “boosted” mine, which is one that has either extra explosive packed into the mine or is laid on top of another explosive, like an artillery shell.  The resulting blast flipped the tank over.  Angolan forces would also link their mines to other explosives to kill or injure anyone trying to clear the mines.

In addition to landmines, the Cuban air force used cluster munitions.   500 and 1,000 pound cluster bomb packages would drop hundreds of sub-munitions, small enough to land in South Africans’ foxholes causing immense damage.  A cluster bomb package “could clear an area of about fifty meters with no vegetation left higher than knee level.”  The failure rates of these bombs is unknown, but many sub-munitions would not have exploded upon contact becoming landmines.

The density of the minefields around Cuito Cuanavale is staggering.  In 2015 alone, the HALO Trust cleared 2,943 antipersonnel mines, 1,175 anti-tank mines and another 25,000 unexploded ordnances from an area of less than 800,000 square meters (All Africa). In 2014, the government of Angola reported that 258 sites covering 25 million square meters in Cuando Cubango Province were confirmed to be contaminated with landmines (Government of Angola), representing a quarter of all confirmed minefields in the country. Certainly a contender for the most mine-affected area in Angola.

Michael P. Moore

March 15, 2016

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


Most quotes taken from The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War by Peter Polack.

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