NONGOMA, South Africa (AP) _ Zulu warriors in animal skins danced and waved spears and shields as bare-breasted women adorned with beaded waistbands strutted past.

Then the men and boys took off their shirts, and with their king's blessing, cornered and killed a muscular black bull with their bare hands.

The spectacle Saturday at the Zulu royal stable, near Nongoma in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal province, was a blend of tradition and present-day politics _ part of King Goodwill Zwelithini's bid to wrest control of his people from nationalist leader, and distant cousin, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

``What the king is trying to do is bring all the political parties together under one umbrella,''said Mesuli Sibiya, 27, a warrior who wore a cowhide wrapping with blue and red socks and Adidas running shoes.

Scenes from a century ago filled the stable, formed by a fence of jagged tree limbs, some topped with animal horns.

An herbal healer ran among the frenzied warriors during the chase, splashing them with his muti, or medicine, to protect them.

Zwelithini, with black and scarlet muti dabbed on his face and body, selected a young warrior as leader of the kill.

Other images were decidedly modern. Two bodyguards, with jackets over body armor and automatic rifles, remained on each side of the king, who stood among dancers dressed in leopard skins.

Fears of an attack by Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, which has championed Zulu autonomy and heritage for two decades, prompted the security presence and was blamed for the low turnout _ about 500 people.

Inkatha marchers in nearby Nongoma reportedly fired shots at one vehicle and stopped a bus heading to the ceremony, beating the occupants until police arrived.

The split in Zulu loyalties reflects the circumstances that spawned a decade of low-level civil war in the region. Buthelezi, who headed the former KwaZulu homeland and Inkatha, clashed with pro-democracy forces aligned with the African National Congress in fighting that killed more than 15,000 people.

More than 8 million South Africans consider themselves Zulu, making them the country's largest single ethnic group.

King Zwelithini, who depended on Buthelezi and the homeland government for the royal family budget, towed the Inkatha line prior to last year's democratic election that ended apartheid and the homeland system. Dismayed by the unabated violence, he broke away from Buthelezi this year after President Nelson Mandela's ANC-led government took over paying the royal family's expenses.

Now the king, who at 47 has ruled for 25 years, continues to push for Zulu autonomy through unity and has tried to position himself above political divisions as the sole traditional leader and focus of tribal loyalty.

Some say his cutting of ties with Buthelezi has cost the king support. Traditional ceremonies like the annual reed dance and Shaka day rallies have been poorly attended, and Zwelithini has been criticized for including non-Zulus, such as white women at the annual reed dance and Pondo women at Saturday's Ukweshwama, or first fruit ceremony.

Dating to the warrior-king Shaka in the 19th century, the first fruit ceremony celebrates the planting and food of summer. It was not performed in the 20th century until Zwelithini revived it in 1992.

``To continue our culture and customs is very important because in our new democracy, it doesn't mean we forget our ways,'' Chief Zibuse Mlaba explained. ``Education does not mean we forget our past.''

To Sibiya, who danced in the front row of warriors, ``the Zulu kingdom and my king is more important than political organizations.'' The small turnout was due to Inkatha intimidation, because ``other people couldn't afford to risk their lives to come here,'' he said.

By killing the bull, a symbol of power, with their bare hands, the modern-day warriors gain a bond with forefathers who ruled the region.

Zwelithini and other leaders, including his five wives and more than a dozen children, looked on as the mob moved in toward the animal. The bull started running around the perimeter until slowed by the crowd and finally toppled.

For 40 minutes, dozens trampled the bellowing, groaning bull, wrenched its head around by the horns to try to break its neck, pulled its tongue out, stuffed sand in its mouth and even tried to tie its penis in a knot. Gleaming with sweat, they raised their arms in triumph and sang when the bull finally succumbed.

``It's cruelty, we agree, but it's our culture. We cannot change our culture,'' said Mlaba, the chief.