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Government Says Detainees Free, But They Remain at Embassy

March 21, 1989

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The government said Tuesday four escaped detainees holed up at the West German Embassy can go free, but the black activists remained in their refuge.

The four, who had been on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment without trial, met their lawyers Tuesday evening. They lawyers said the escapees intended to remain at the embassy Tuesday night and would make a statement Wednesday.

In other developments Tuesday, police reported sporadic violence as tens of thousands of blacks stayed away from schools and work to mark the 29th anniversary of a massacre in the black township of Sharpeville, outside Johannesburg, where police fatally shot 69 unarmed black protesters.

Brig. Leon Mellett, spokesman for Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, said the escapees are ″legally free ... They will not be arrested if they walk out of there.″

Mellett refused to say if the releases would be unconditional. Many detainees freed in recent weeks are under tough restrictions limiting their movements and involvement in anti-apartheid organizations.

Lawyer Priscilla Jana said the Ministry of Law and Order had given her four clients unspecified ″assurances.″

The activists escaped Monday from a Johannesburg hospital where they were being treated for the effects of the hunger strike. Ms. Jana said they traveled by taxi the 38 miles to the embassy in Pretoria.

Mellett said release orders for three of the men had been signed Saturday and the fourth case also was being reviewed at that time.

A statement Monday from the detainees indicated they were not aware of the government action when they escaped.

The escapees - Job Sithole, 21; Ephraim Nkoe, 28; Mpho Lekgoro, 24; and Clive Radebe, 28 - had been held for between 10 and 23 months.

They said Monday they were from Johannesburg and Pretoria and belonged to organizations affiliated with the banned United Democratic Front, South Africa’s largest anti-apartheid coalition.

Hundreds of detainees have taken part in hunger strikes since January, demanding they be freed or stand trial. Foreign Minister Pik Botha said the government has authorized the release of 580 detainees in the past five weeks. More than 300 people remain in detention, according to human rights groups.

Elsewhere, police, employers and teachers estimated Sharpeville day strikes were slightly smaller than in previous years.

Buses in Johannesburg and the port city of Durban were stoned or attacked with petrol bombs, said police and the Putco bus company.

Protesters barricaded some roads, and buses traveled under police escort. Thousands of black high school students boycotted classes.

In neighboring Zimbabwe, hundreds of blacks and whites marched and prayed for those killed. Nicholas Ndebele, director of the Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, told marchers Pretoria’s refusal to free detainees ″is a clear sign that the battle will not let up, that the world must do more to bring down apartheid.″

At Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, police used tear gas to break up a crowed of 1,000 black and white students commemorating the shootings. The police acted because the students unfurled the flag of the outlawed African National Congress guerrilla movement.

In separate unrest, police said 233 blacks were arrested after a fight between two groups of men at Howick, a town in Natal province. They gave no reason for the fight. One black man was killed when police fired shotguns and tear gas to break up a fight elsewhere in Howick, police said.

Black unrest has declined in most areas under a 33-month state of emergency that gives security forces widespread powers. An estimated 30,000 people have been held without charge for varying lengths of time during the emergency.

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