Weeks before elections, weapons found in S. Africa

Tensions heightened as ANC, Inkatha parties try to settle differences

May 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Police said yesterday that they had uncovered a vast cache of arms and ammunition in a bunker in KwaZulu-Natal province, aggravating tensions as South Africa's second post-apartheid elections approach on June 2.

The stockpile, believed to be the biggest uncovered in South Africa, were found in Nquthu, about 20 miles west of Ulundi, the former headquarters of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

The find was announced on a day when officials from Inkatha and President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress gathered in Pietermaritzburg to talk about ways to ease tensions between the two parties, which have been locked in a struggle for dominance in the province for more than a decade.

Law enforcement officials say the province is awash with weapons, many of them left over from the most intense period of fighting between the groups, before the elections in 1994.

Fighting continued after the election, easing only in 1997 and 1998 after prolonged peace negotiations.

Government officials were led to the cache, which included more than seven tons of arms, ammunition and explosives, by Phillip Powell, a prominent member of Inkatha. In recent weeks, numerous newspaper articles have suggested that the flamboyant Powell, who is often seen heavily armed, was about to be arrested for running guns.

In a statement to the South African Press Association, Powell said the rumors of his impending arrest had led him to approach the police with information about the bunker. He said he had negotiated an immunity deal, but the director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, said later that no such bargain had been struck.

The arsenal -- which included rocket launchers, 1,484 rifle grenades, 140 anti-personnel mines and more than 4,300 detonators -- was buried in a bunker about 12 feet deep. Police entered through a manhole.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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