JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela unleashed a blistering attack on the South African government yesterday for failing to meet an agreement to release all political prisoners by the end of April.
Mr. Mandela, deputy president of the African National Congress, demanded that President F. W. de Klerk "empty the prisons" of ANC members and others who were jailed for opposing apartheid.
"There remain large numbers of people in jail who ought to have been released under our agreement with the government," Mr. Mandela told an enthusiastic, mostly black crowd at Johannesburg's City Hall, which had never before housed such an anti-apartheid gathering.
"I can state emphatically that we find this failure of the government totally unacceptable," he said. "If the government is trying to avoid mass action, they are provoking the very opposite."
The government's handling of political prisoners and exiles has loomed for months as an issue that could seriously disrupt the political reform process under way in South Africa the past 15 months.
Last Aug. 6 the ANC and the government signed an accord in which the anti-apartheid organization promised to end its guerrilla campaign and the government agreed in return to release political prisoners by April 30. The ANC later threatened to pull out of the process if the government failed to meet its target date.
In Cape Town, Mr. de Klerk said that his government had released 933 prisoners and that it was in the process of releasing dozens of others. He said he had rejected applications by 364 prisoners because "these were obviously criminals who opportunistically made use of the opportunity" provided during political unrest.
Mr. de Klerk said the government had intended to complete the process of releasing prisoners by the April 30 deadline but had run into problems with the ANC over the definition of a political prisoner.
The government maintains that fewer than 200 political prisoners remain in custody, while the ANC puts the number at more than 4,000. The issue is one of several key disagreements between the two parties.
Mr. Mandela did not renew the threat to pull out of negotiations, but he threatened to "take this demand to the streets."
Meanwhile, more than 100 people were arrested yesterday during nationwide demonstrations organized by the ANC Youth League to demand the immediate release of all political prisoners.