Ambush in Natal brings toll to 19

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FOR the third time in six days, gunmen ambushed a vehicle outside Pietermaritzburg, capital of Natal, bringing the combined death toll to 19 and raising fears that bloodshed in the province would set back the schedule for democratic elections.

Police and African National Congress spokesmen said the bus, carrying ANC supporters, was on its way to Pietermaritzburg yesterday when gunmen opened fire, killing the driver, then shooting at the trapped passengers. At least three people were killed and eight injured. Last Tuesday gunmen ambushed a station-wagon taking children to school, killing six. Three of the dead were the children of a local Inkatha Freedom Party leader, prompting Inkatha officials to blame the ANC. On Friday, 10 people died in an almost identical attack on a minibus. This time the victims were said to belong to the ANC camp.

Particularly alarming to residents of the black townships outside Pietermaritzburg was the fact that, while the area has in the past been at the heart of Natal's Zulu- on-Zulu war between Inkatha and the ANC, relative peace had reigned for the past year. The focus of the fighting had shifted to other parts of the province.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who visited Pietermaritzburg last week, said he detected a sinister hand behind the killings. It was the timing that had aroused his suspicions - just before and just after the resumption of multi- party negotiations.

The ANC, which has not issued any statements blaming Inkatha, picked up the archbishop's theme, saying the killings were part of a strategy by right-wing groups to undermine progress towards democracy. Officials attending the weekend multi-party talks said they suspected white extremists had hired black assassins to do the dirty work for them.

Richard Goldstone, the judge appointed by President F W de Klerk 15 months ago to head an inquiry into political violence, yesterday said he would appoint a commission to try to prepare the terrain for peaceful general elections, expected next year. The commission would examine ways of curbing electoral violence, said Judge Goldstone, who is known to be especially alarmed at the potential for chaos in Natal.