Abstract This paper presents and contrasts features of the inelastic nuclear reactions of 200 GeV/nucleon 16O and 32S ions with emulsion nuclei. Both the multiplicities of shower particles and the extent of target fragmentation have been studied for varying degress of disruption of the projectile nuclei. The results may be interpreted within a simple geometrical model. In particular the rapidity distributions of those events which exhibit complete projectile break-up without any overt sign of low-energy target fragmentation have been determined. The interaction of secondary projectile fragments of charge two or more issuing from oxygen interactions were also studied and the mean free paths in emulsion of the primary 16O and 32S ions and all such fragments have been compared to those predicted by a simple Glauber model.