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Four Escaped Detainees Leave Embassy Refuge

March 22, 1989

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Four activists who escaped to the West German Embassy emerged Wednesday after police guaranteed their freedom.

They demanded the release of all other detainees, including one reported near death because of a 33-day hunger strike.

″We emerge feeling victorious,″ said Ephraim Nkoe, one of the four blacks who fled to the embassy Monday from Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Hospital, where they had been admitted after joining other detainees in a widespread hunger strike.

Nkoe said the four ″just marched out of the hospital″ in pajamas while their guards were not looking and took a 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 a message for one of the diplomats.

The men left the embassy and returned to Johannesburg, where they embraced relatives before addressing a news conference.

They called for the release of the estimated 300 activists still detained without charge and issued a special appeal on behalf of Sandile Thusi, hospitalized in critical condition in Durban after fasting for 33 days. Nkoe said Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok sent a police general to Durban to determine if Thusi, 26, should be released.

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

Many detainees freed since the hunger strike began in January have been placed under nighttime house arrest and barred from 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 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 staged hunger strikes for varying periods since January, demanding to be released or put on trial. The government says it has authorized the release of 580 detainees since mid-February, but human rights groups say at least 300 people remain in detention, including more than 60 hunger strikers.

″The arbitrary manner in which (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.

The largest group of detainees - about 80 - is still held at St. Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth. Lawyers say this group includes many prominent activists, held without charge since 1986, who won’t be released because the government is considering a treason case against them.

The Rev. Frank Chikane, general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches, visited 15 of the St. Albans detainees Wednesday. He warned of a ″looming crisis″ at the prison, where the detainees have suspended the hunger strike while Vlok considered their status.

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

Seeking to minimize publicity about the incident, the government promptly declared the men were free. After more than five weeks, the men left the consulate and have resumed active roles in the anti-apartheid movement.

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