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Four Black Detainees Escape; Obtain Refuge at Embassy

March 20, 1989

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Four black detainees on a hunger strike escaped Monday from a Johannesburg hospital, fled 38 miles to Pretoria and took refuge at the West German Embassy there, officials said.

The four men, who were held without charge for between 10 months and 23 months, demanded that the government guarantee that they and all other political detainees will be freed.

″We have committed no crime,″ the escapees said in a statement. ″We have been kept in detention for so long that we felt we had to embark on a life- and-death hunger strike to dramatize our plight in detention and to ultimately secure our immediate release.″

West German Embassy Counselor Klaus Bonnemann said Monday night, ″They can stay and we will not make them leave against their will.″

He said the men will have access to medical treatment if needed.

Hundreds of detainees have taken part in hunger strikes since January, demanding to be released or put on trial. The government says it freed more than 400 detainees in the past month and that about 350 remain in custody.

An estimated 30,000 people have been held without charge for varying lengths of time since the state of emergency was imposed 33 months ago.

Foreign Minister Pik Botha said his government is in contact with the West Germans, and the matter was ″receiving attention.″ Botha did not say what actions South Africa plans.

The men said through the Detainees Aid Center that they belong to organizations affiliated with the banned United Democratic Front, the country’s largest anti-apartheid coalition.

They identified themselves as Job Sithole, 21, Ephraim Nkoe, 28, Mpho Lekgoro, 24, and Clive Radebe, 28. All are from the townships around Johannesburg and Pretoria and have been active in various youth and student organizations, their statement said.

By law and custom, apartheid establishes a racially segregated society in which the 28 million blacks have no vote in national affairs. The 5 million whites control the economy and maintain separate districts, schools and health services.

The men did not disclose how they escaped from the hospital and got to the West German Embassy.

But lawyer Priscilla Jana, who met the men Monday evening, told the South African Press Association the four took a taxi from the hospital to the embassy.

Journalists were not allowed inside the embassy, but from the gates four black men clad in T-shirts and jeans could be seen standing in the foyer of the building.

The embassy, surrounded by 13-foot high walls, is less than a half-mile from Union Buildings, South Africa’s administrative capital.

People have escaped from South African custody and taken refuge in foreign diplomatic missions several times in recent years.

Most recently, three detainees escaped from a hospital in September and holed up in the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg for more than 40 days before deciding to leave. The South African government promised the three men, all United Democratic Front members, would not be detained or restricted once they left the consulate. The three have spoken regularly on behalf of the organization in recent months.

In another incident, Klaas de Jonge, a Dutch citizen accused of smuggling weapons for the African National Congress guerrilla movement, took refuge in the Dutch Consulate in Pretoria for more than two years before he was returned to the Netherlands in September 1987 in an exchange involving prisoners in four countries.

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