S A army rides into town to quell fighting

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FLASHING 'V' for victory signs, 600 mainly white army troops rode aboard a 150-vehicle convoy into Natal/KwaZulu province yesterday on a mission to keep the low-level civil war between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress from disrupting South Africa's first all-race elections in three weeks.

The military column, which included tanks and armoured personnel carriers, was the biggest show of strength yet by the South African Defence Force since President F W de Klerk declared a state of emergency in the region on 31 March. Since then, politically-linked violence has claimed the lives of at least 124 people in the region, 21 on Wednesday alone.

The column's arrival marked the army's deepest penetration into the heartland of the KwaZulu 'homeland', whose leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is boycotting the 26-28 April elections.

The first sign of the force's arrival in Eshowe was a military helicopter which roared overhead as the convoy wound down through the green hills of KwaZulu/Natal from Ladysmith to the Zululand showgrounds outside the town in northern Natal. The column's entrance into Eshowe brought to nearly 3,000 the number of troops attempting to enforce the state of emergency.

Colonel Eddie Viljoen, the Northern Natal operational commander, called the reinforcements of mainly white reservists a 'formidable force' which he said must prevent South Africa from turning into another Angola, where a 19- year civil war has left the country in ruins. He said hundreds more reservists were being readied for service in KwaZulu/Natal.

The troopers appeared in high spirits and took great pains to be polite to passers-by, many of whom smiled and waved as the tanks roared by. 'If they cannot stop the fighting, there is no hope for South Africa,' one traffic policeman said. The convoy's efforts to make way for civilian traffic went awry, however, when an armoured personnel carrier was left stranded on its side in a ditch.

The goal of the arriving force, which is expected to begin deployment tomorrow, will be to stem a rising tide of politically related violence in the black townships and rural areas in Northern Natal. The SADF units in KwaZulu/Natal are also expected to attempt to halt a flow of AK-47 assault rifles from neighbouring Mozambique.

As the troop-carriers made their way to the showgrounds, 50 refugees from the fighting were receiving food and blankets from the International Committee of the Red Cross in the centre of the town. They had fled townships and homesteads around Eshowe which have exploded into violence since King Goodwill made his call on 18 March for a sovereign Zulu monarchy. Many said they were living at the railway station, while others had taken refuge in the bush.

'Every night there was shooting, fighting and burning of homes,' said one of the refugees, Agostina Nene, 42, who lives with her stepfather, stepmother, and four children in a forest outside Eshowe. 'They burnt my house, all my clothes, and now I have no food, no stuff for cooking, nothing.'

Whether the assailants were members of Inkatha or the ANC, she said she did not know. Mrs Nene said she had been on the run since gunmen burnt down her home in the nearby village of Nyanini three weeks ago.

'We went to one forest, and the police told us to leave. Then a white man made us leave his farm, and now we are back in the forest,' she said.

Mrs Nene said she that while she welcomed the elections she did not think her first-ever vote was worth sacrificing her family. 'People talk about elections, but I worry about my children. The main thing now is to keep my children alive.'