Even as sanctions are lifted, S. Africa is jolted by army raid that killed 5 youths

October 10, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A military raid that was supposed to be aimed at terrorists but instead left five young people dead has tempered any celebration in this country over the lifting of sanctions by the United Nations.

Indeed, the raid early Friday -- just hours after the United Nations took its action -- may have jeopardized the very negotiating process that led to the lifting of those sanctions.

Government officials termed the raid "a pre-emptive strike" on a house belonging to leaders of the Azanian Peoples' Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress.

But the PAC, while acknowledging that the house belonged to one of its members, Segqibo Mpendulo, said that the only people in the house when the raid occurred were five youths between ages 12 and 19, all asleep after an evening of studying.

All five died in what witnesses described as a bullet-riddled house. The chief of the army, Gen. Georg Meiring, asserted that his soldiers fired only after they encountered resistance. At a news conference, he acknowledged that the troops encountered no return fire but said that "weapons were brandished."

"They were acting in good faith in the middle of the night against targets who they believed to be grown-ups," he said.

"Intensive investigations . . . have confirmed that three of the five occupants shot dead were indeed trained APLA terrorists," Deputy Law and Order Minister Gert Myburg said in a statement.

The raid was in Umtata, the capital of Transkei, a homeland for blacks that no government other than South Africa's recognizes as an independent state. Because of that status, the action by the South African Defense Forces was across an international border. General Meiring said that the troops, who were ordered to avoid loss of life if possible, spent no more than 15 minutes in the house and "did not dwell to find out ages."

The PAC, while participating in negotiations for a new South African government, has refused to suspend its armed struggle against the current rulers. Its members have taken credit for attacks on white targets and murders of white farmers.

Some PAC members are suspected in the recent massacre at the St. James Church near Cape Town and in the killing in August of Amy Biehl, an American student, in the black township of Guguletu. The government has been under pressure from its white constituency to take action against the APLA.

Military officials said the raid was planned after surveillance confirmed information from an APLA prisoner who said that the house was used for planning and staging terrorist attacks. They said that weapons, including AK-47s, along with documents and photographs that support this claim, were recovered in the raid.

But left behind were five bodies that the PAC said were those of the 16-year-old twin sons of Mr. Mpendulo, and of three of their friends, one 19, the two others 12-year-olds. There were reports that they had been shot in the back of the head, execution-style.

"The tragedy of the Umtata operation is not that the South African government acted to protect its citizens from terror attacks, but that the PAC and APLA are deliberately abusing juveniles for terroristic purposes," Mr. Myburg said.

Condemnation of the raid was widespread. In Brussels, Belgium, Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress, called it "an act of thuggery and pure terrorism."

"We will have incidents of this nature under a government which is illegitimate and discredited and inept," he said.

In a statement later, the ANC said that state President F. W. DeKlerk "must take full responsibility for the deaths of these young people."

The Transkei government, along with several top South African church officials, also denounced the raid. APLA promised reprisal attacks.

And yesterday, at a meeting of the ruling National Party's youth congress in Johannesburg, the mainly black party supporters asked for a minute of silence for those who died. The chair of the meeting, Roelf Meyer, the constitutional development minister, agreed.

Mr. Meyer is the National Party's chief negotiator at the Multi Party Talks that are working out an interim constitution that will take effect after multiracial elections scheduled for April 27.

It was those negotiators who last month worked out a Transition Executive Council, a step designed to put blacks in a position of power in South Africa for the first time. The TEC's approval by Parliament led to calls for the lifting of sanctions.

But, before it is implemented, the TEC must be approved by a larger, plenary session of the Multi Party Talks. This raid could mean that the PAC will pull out of the negotiations.

Coupled with the announcement of a new alliance between right-wing whites and blacks who seek greater local autonomy -- also threatening a mass walkout from the negotiations -- there is the possibility that the plenary session will be postponed, jeopardize the final approval of the TEC and setting back the negotiating process.

But Mr. Mandela said that the ANC wanted to proceed with the talks. "We cannot be diverted from that course by incidents of this nature," he said.

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