JOHANNESBURG — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The South African police force, accused of operating hit squads that assassinated government opponents during the 1980s, was exonerated yesterday by a special commission appointed this year by President Frederik W. de Klerk.
The judicial "commission," whose only member was a respected justice of a regional Supreme Court, concluded that no police hit squads operated in South Africa. But it said a covert military unit uncovered last year might have been responsible for political assassinations and other acts of violence.
Justice Louis Harms did not issue any definite findings about the Civil Cooperation Bureau, as the covert unit was known, but said he would refer evidence to the attorney general's office for possible action.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok immediately called on government opponents who had criticized the police to retract their accusations, saying that "it is surely not asking too much."
But critics said the commission's report could damage the credibility and stature of Mr. de Klerk's government. The African National Congress called the finding "inexplicable." The independent South African Human Rights Commission said it was "unacceptable."
The panel was asked to investigate 71 unsolved crimes that were suspected of being politically motivated. The most prominent included the 1981 killing of a lawyer and political activist named Griffiths Mxenge, a staunch ANC supporter who was stabbed more than 40 times. A former police captain and a death row inmate both testified that they were part of a hit squad that planned the murder.
Mr. Mxenge's wife, Victoria, was slain four years later.
The commission also investigated the 1989 slaying of David Webster, an anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist. The covert CCB came to light during investigations of Dr. Webster's death when the investigating officer, Brigadier Floris Mostert, said he had linked the murder to a secret organization set up to sow fear among leftist radicals.
Justice Harms said that Brigadier Mostert's testimony was "unsatisfactory and contradictory," but that "one cannot be blamed for suspecting the CCB of this murder."
He said, "All that the evidence shows is that the CCB might have murdered Dr. Webster. There is, however, no prima facie evidence that elevates this suspicion to anything more than a mere suspicion."
The CCB, whose existence was eventually confirmed by the government, was disbanded by President de Klerk in June.