RICHMOND, South Africa (AP) _ Political leaders appealed for peace Saturday while mourners buried the victims of a massacre in a South African town bloodied by political strife.
Feuding in Richmond between the opposition United Democratic Movement party and the ruling African National Congress has cost scores of lives, and raised fears the violence will escalate amid preparations for national and provincial elections, to be held later this year.
Voter registration, ongoing in most of the country, was postponed in Richmond until next week because of tensions amid funerals in each of the rival camps.
On Saturday, the bodies of 11 ANC supporters gunned down in a massacre were buried. Another funeral is planned Sunday for local UDM strongman Siphiso Nkabinde, who was assassinated on Jan. 23.
About 1,000 police and soldiers patrolled Richmond and its adjacent townships, nestled in rolling green hills amid forests and sugarcane plantations. Soldiers erected roadblocks and searched every passing car for weapons.
In a small township church hall, hundreds of people gathered in front of seven coffins, painted in the ANC colors of green, yellow and black. The massacre, which took place only hours after Nkabinde was gunned down in his car in Richmond, was apparently in revenge for his murder.
One by one the coffins were driven away in hearses to an overgrown cemetery on a hillside above town. Under the watchful eyes of heavily armed soldiers, each casket was lowered into the earth.
ANC Chairman Patrick Terror Lekota told mourners to respect other people’s right to join different political parties and said there was no need for the killings.
``Today the political stage is open for everybody,″ he said. ``Why does anybody need to kill anybody?″
Four other ANC supporters who also died in the massacre were buried in Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal province.
Just a few miles away, in a UDM-controlled area, a similar scene played out.
Beside a coffin draped in a golden UDM flag, mourners sang hymns at the service for ex-Nkabinde bodyguard Mbongeleli Mtolo, who was shot by soldiers shortly after the 11 ANC supporters were massacred.
Army sources said an assault rifle was found near Mtolo’s body and it was suspected he may have led the massacre.
Nkabinde was a controversial figure. He joined the UDM after being kicked out of the ANC when it accused him of being an apartheid spy. He was acquitted last year of 16 murder charges.
While Richmond buried its dead, preparations for elections continued in most of the rest of the country.
The Independent Electoral Commission said about 1.5 million voters registered Friday, the start of a three-day round of voter registration.
In a first round in November and December, about 9.6 million voters registered. There are an estimated 25 million potential voters countrywide.
While officials urged the public to turn up to get onto voting lists, some of the problems that plagued the first round of registration continued. Volunteers staffing the registration centers failed to turn up at some of them, causing an unknown number to remain closed.
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, expected to succeed the retiring Nelson Mandela as president, visited a center near the capital Pretoria and discovered it lacked electronic registration equipment.
Regardless, Mbeki appeared satisfied.
``There were problems. In big cities like Johannesburg certain registration stations were not open, but all in all the process is ... very good,″ Mbeki was quoted as saying by the South African Press Association.