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Precede PRETORIA Four Escapees Leave West German Embassy

March 22, 1989

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ The four detainees who escaped in pajamas from their guards at a hospital walked out of their refuge at the West German Embassy today after the government guaranteed their freedom.

″We emerge feeling victorious,″ said Ephraim Nkoe, 28, one of the four black activists who fled to the embassy Monday from Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Hospital, where they were admitted after joining a widespread hunger strike.

Nkoe said the four ″just marched out of the hospital″ in pajamas when their guards were not looking, walked along a busy downtown street and took a mini-bus taxi to the embassy in Pretoria. The men pressed the buzzer at the embassy’s locked gate, Nkoe said, and were allowed in after saying they had an urgent message for one of the diplomats.

The men, accompanied by two lawyers, emerged from the embassy at midmorning today, then returned to Johannesburg for a news conference.

They said the government guaranteed their unconditional freedom, but they called for release of the estimated 300 activists still detained without charge.

The escapees specifically urged the release of Sandile Thusi, a detainee hospitalized in critical condition in Durban who has not eaten for 33 days. Nkoe said Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok sent a police general to Durban today to determine if Thusi should be released.

The four escapees had been held for periods of 10 months to 23 months. In addition to Nkoe, they are Job Sithole, 21, Mpho Lekgoro, 24, and Clive Radebe, 28 - all leaders of youth organizations affiliated to the banned United Democratic Front anti-apartheid coalition.

Many detainees freed since the hunger strike began in January have been placed under tough restrictions limiting their movements and involvement in anti-apartheid groups. The Law and Order Ministry imposed no restrictions on the four escapees and said release orders were being prepared for three of them at the time of their getaway.

The detainees, in a statement, said this claim was ″difficult to believe.″ Their skepticism was shared by Business Day, a Johannesburg newspaper, which said Vlok was ″trying to conceal both the shame of detention without trial and the embarrassment of release without notice.″

More than 600 detainees have joined in hunger strikes for varying periods since January, demanding to be released or put on trial. Foreign Minister Pik Botha last week said the government has authorized the release of 580 detainees since mid-February, but human rights groups say about 300 people remain in detention, including several hunger strikers in critical condition.

″The arbitrary manner in which the minister (Vlok) decides on the fate of detainees gives us the impression that he does not regard us as human beings but as numbers,″ the escapees said. ″There is no basis for keeping some and releasing others.″

The state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp., in a commentary today, said the escape would have ″a damaging impact on South Africa’s image abroad.″

″The cause of negotiation and reconciliation inside South Africa will be set back, and this will serve to emphasize the continuing need for the state of emergency,″ the SABC said.

The government’s handling of the escape was similar to its response last year when three prominent United Democrat Front leaders in detention escaped from a hospital and took refuge at the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg.

Seeking to minimize international publicity about the incident, the government promptly announced that the three were free to leave without restriction. After more than five weeks, the men did leave the consulate, and have resumed leading roles in the anti-apartheid movement.

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