PRETORIA, South Africa -- After more than a year of negotiations, the South African government agreed yesterday to allow the United Nations to supervise the return of thousands of political exiles to South Africa from around the world.
The agreement establishes the first formal U.N. presence in South Africa, a step the government had resisted for years as interference in its internal politics.
The accord also is expected to help remove one of the biggest stumbling blocks to full-fledged multiparty negotiations aimed at moving the South African political system away from white-minority rule.
There was no immediate comment on the agreement from the African National Congress, which has demanded that an estimated 40,000 exiles who fled South Africa for political reasons be allowed to return with impunity.
The ANC wants a general amnesty for political exiles, but the government insists on examining each case to determine whether an exile committed crimes that go beyond its definition of what constitutes a political offense.
"It remains the exclusive prerogative of the South African government to grant amnesty to returnees regarding offenses they may have committed," Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha said.
The agreement between his government and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees "is not a general amnesty in the sense that that term is usually used and understood," but rather an attempt to facilitate the return of exiles who individually are granted amnesty, he said.
Mr. Botha's statement differed from the U.N. interpretation of the agreement. The High Commissioner issued a statement from its headquarters in Geneva saying that the agreement involves "a comprehensive amnesty for all political offenses, excluding criminal offenses, allegedly committed by refugees before or during their exile."
According to the U.N. agency, which has had a delegation in South Africa for a week, exiles who receive amnesty will be allowed to return to South Africa "without risk of arrest,
detention, imprisonment or legal proceedings."