JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A new confrontation was looming between South Africa's reformist government and right-wing extremists yesterday after President F. W. de Klerk's refusal to grant amnesty to three white prisoners on a hunger strike.
Mr. de Klerk's decision puts him in the strange position of denying amnesty to white prisoners after releasing hundreds of black political prisoners who had been considered enemies of the state.
Right-wing leaders accused him of not caring about whites and threatened violence if any of the hunger strikers dies in custody.
"To every citizen it must now be clear that the country has a black government with white skins," said Robert van Tonder, leader of a white supremacist group called the Boerestaat Party. "The National Party regime does not care two hoots for the whites."
Another right-wing leader, Eugene TerreBlanche, whose followers clashed with policemen guarding Mr. de Klerk earlier this month, warned that he would not be able to contain right-wing "bitterness and anger if mercy is not shown toward these right-wingers."
The three men, charged with stealing explosives and setting off bombs that killed one man and injured 13 others, are said to be thin, dehydrated and perhaps near death after weeks on a hunger strike. The longest striker has gone 52 days without food, while the others have fasted 46 and 38 days.
The government announced Wednesday that Mr. de Klerk had decided not to free the men because their alleged crimes did not qualify as political offenses. It said the men would receive a fair trial as soon as possible and could be released on bail in the meantime.
But Wim Cornelius -- the lawyer for Henry Martin, 49, Adrian Maritz, 43, and Lood van Schalkwyk, 53 -- said his clients were not interested in bail.
He said the men were determined to continue their hunger strike until they are released because they consider themselves political prisoners who qualify for release under the same program that allowed Mr. de Klerk to release more than 1,000 black activists earlier this year.
But a Justice Department official said the government wanted the men to stand trial for the bombings. A trial is set for Oct. 28, but if they continue to refuse food they are not likely to last until that date.
African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela urged the government yesterday to release the three white prisoners on humanitarian grounds. He said the issue should be resolved in a way that "enhances the delicate peace process under way."
The ANC said the death of the three would be tragic and unnecessary and would only make them martyrs for the right-wing cause.