ULUNDI, South Africa (AP) _ Nine months ago, South Africa's transformation from white rule to a black-led democracy seemed threatened by vicious fighting between black political factions.

Led by Nelson Mandela and former President F.W. de Klerk, political leaders forged deals to end the violence and hold the nation's first all-race election last April.

But assassinations and massacres have returned to the tinderbox of black political tension: the traditional Zulu homeland where the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party faces off against Mandela's African National Congress.

With nationwide elections for local government posts scheduled for October, the renewed conflict threatens stability in the former KwaZulu black homeland, now part of KwaZulu-Natal province.

The Human Rights Committee, an independent group that monitors political violence, said 110 people were killed in KwaZulu-Natal in January compared to 71 in December. More importantly, attacks by armed groups on homes and families have started again after virtually disappearing after the April election.

In one attack, assailants set fire to an Inkatha leader's house, then gunned down three of his children and two of their friends who fled outside in panic. It was unclear if ANC rivals or Inkatha loyalists angered by the leader's conciliatory stance toward the ANC were responsible.

At issue is whether the ANC-led national government or the Inkatha-controlled provincial government holds ultimate power over the nation's 7 million Zulus.

Inkatha seeks autonomy for the traditional Zulu homeland and king, claiming that the ANC wants a centralized system. It has threatened to boycott the local elections unless it gets autonomy.

The ANC believes Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi wants to maintain the autocratic power he built up over decades as leader of KwaZulu. It wants the central government to undermine Buthelezi's support by paying the Zulu king and local chiefs annual government stipends of up to $10,590.

Inkatha ``will fight this issue right up until the election because that's the way they play politics,'' said Mervyn Frost, a political science professor at the University of Natal in Durban.

``It is very good political strategy,'' Frost said. ``You get a lot of attention and it doesn't cost you any money.''

Inkatha used the same tactic last year, when Buthelezi threatened to boycott the April election until a week before it took place.

Political violence that had raged for years, killing thousands, virtually ceased when Inkatha ended the boycott. The group gained widespread media attention in the final days of the campaign.

Now Buthelezi is Home Affairs minister in Mandela's government, but lately he has increased his nationalist rhetoric, calling on Zulu chiefs to save the Zulu kingdom from ANC-communist oppression.

So far, the ANC has persuaded Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini to sever ties with Buthelezi, who used to dominate his cousin by controlling the royal family's budget.

But Buthelezi is backed by about 200 of the 300 Zulu local chiefs, who threaten to block local elections unless Inkatha's political demands are met.

The local elections are considered crucial because development projects for millions of impoverished blacks need local administrators to implement them.

``If we allow elections, we will lose our land and our people,'' said Inkatha-aligned chief Boy Mzimela, leader of about 100,000 people in the rural Mtunzini district. ``If we have elections, we will become counselors to the mayors, and even then we will be only one of many counselors.''

Zibuse Mlaba, one of the few chiefs to openly back the ANC, disagreed.

``We must move with the times,'' Mlaba said. ``We must learn democracy and mix with other ethnic groups or we will be swept away by history.''

In addition, Buthelezi wants international mediators involved in the question of how much power provinces should have in the new constitution being written by the ANC-led government. ANC Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa, who leads the constitution-writing body, rejects mediation.

After talks Tuesday with Roelf Meyer, the provincial affairs minister in Mandela's Cabinet, Inkatha officials said Zulu chiefs would reject local elections if there is no international mediation.