Gunmen ambush ANC leaders on peace mission: John Carlin witnessed another bloody episode in the vicious war between the ANC and Inkatha in South Africa's townships

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The Independent Online
TWO African National Congress leaders narrowly escaped death yesterday when they were ambushed in the South African township of Katlehong by gunmen believed to be Inkatha supporters. A journalist was killed.

Nelson Mandela, the ANC president, blamed the government for not cracking down on township violence. Mr Mandela will meet President F W de Klerk tomorrow to discuss the attack.

The shooting started barely five minutes after Joe Slovo and Cyril Ramaphosa arrived, surrounded by journalists - but without any police escort - on a visit to find ways to bring peace here and in neighbouring Thokoza. More than 1,800 people have died in fighting between the ANC and Inkatha in the townships since May.

As we passed through a cluster of largely abandoned homes, shots rang out from a migrant workers' hostel 200 yards away, bastion of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Abdul Shariff, a freelance photographer, died after being hit in the chest. Two South African Broadcasting Corporation reporters were wounded when the first automatic rifle fire rang out from the hostel.

Mr Ramaphosa, ANC secretary-general, and Mr Slovo, who is also chairman of the Communist Party, dived to the ground before being whisked away by bodyguards. Some security guards returned fire, but to little purpose. The hostel, three floors high, stood like a giant, impenetrable fortification 200 yards across a piece of open ground.

A minute or so after the shooting started, a group of locals screamed at me and half a dozen other journalists to take cover with them behind the wall of a derelict house. We did as we were told, only to discover there was a young man inside with an AK-47 rifle. 'It's OK,' a resident said. 'He's on our side.' Silent and deadly serious, the young man went down on one knee and, with a thunderous roar, opened fire in the direction of the hostel.

Our reaction to the appearance of the member of the local pro-ANC self-defence unit - soon to be joined by two comrades - was relief and gratitude. The abandoned homes, windowless, looted, and with Inkatha graffiti on the walls, bore testimony to earlier sorties.

For 20 minutes the shooting continued sporadically. I asked Sam Maseko, who had told me not to worry, why had he not left the area. 'I haven't got a father. My brothers have gone. I live with my mother. We have nowhere else to go. Every day they come to kill us, Buthelezi's people. But where can we go?'

A large woman with a baby wrapped in a blanket on her back complained about the police - as did everybody else. 'They know where the Inkatha people are. They know where the murderers are. But they never go there - to the hostel - to take their guns away.'

'There is no possibility of a better life,' interjected Mr Maseko, who is 27 and unemployed. 'We have no Christmas here . . . . We have no new year.'

After half an hour we made a dash for our cars and fled to rejoin Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Slovo, who were addressing a crowd elsewhere in the township. We had not seen one policeman the whole time.

On the way home on the car radio we heard a Brigadier Zirk Gouws say the police had shot dead a man with an AK-47 rifle and arrested another.

It seemed that the police, who by nightfall had made no move on the hostel, had waited until after our departure to strike at the young men who had been protecting us.