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SA `dove' implicated in apartheid-era dirty tricks

From hawk to dove, declared a jubilant press two years ago when General Georg Meiring, leader of the apartheid government's war against the African National Congress, became part of the miracle of South Africa's peaceful transition.

Yesterday, in a previously suppressed report General Meiring - the man who in spite of his past was chosen by President Nelson Mandela to oversee the creation of a national defence force for the new South Africa - was implicated with more than 60 officers and soldiers in apartheid-era dirty tricks, including state-sponsored murder.

The revelation was made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which also suggested that former president FW de Klerk orchestrated a cover up while still in power in 1992 by refusing to investigate charges against General Meiring and two other generals, Kat Liebenberg and Joffel van der Westhuizen, despite the conclusions of an investigation by General Pierre Steyn.

General Steyn, then a lieutenant-general, was appointed by Mr de Klerk to investigate allegations that a shadowy Third Force was destabilising the country through covert violent operations designed to discredit and divide the liberation forces. He probed train violence, assassinations, gun running, drug smuggling and cross-border raids.

Instead of investigating the three generals, as General Steyn specifically recommended, Mr de Klerk asked them to take a look at Steyn's list and come up with one of their own. Twenty-three men were eventually sent packing. But yesterday's TRC announcement confirmed widespread suspicion that the purging of the old guard has been limited.

Charles Villa-Vicencio, the TRC's head of research, said General Steyn believed that during his investigations far more effort was expended by the armed forces and the police on covering up and identifying leaks than on gathering evidence. Despite explicit instructions, police and armed forces documents were destroyed.

Yesterday, Alex Boraine, the TRC's deputy chairman, said Mr de Klerk's actions at the time were extraordinary. "It seems a strange way to get at the truth," he added. He also said that the TRC now held the report Mr de Klerk had previously denied existed in written form.

Mr Boraine plans to hold talks with Defence Minister Joe Modise and General Meiring. "It will be interesting to hear what Mr de Klerk has to say when he appears before the commission later this year," he said.

A defence force spokesman said he could not comment on the charges against General Meiring until the force had had time to study the report.

A spokesman for Mr de Klerk said that the commission was making a deliberate attempt to damage de Klerk, who now leads the national party in opposition. He said the TRC's claims were seriously misleading and that Mr de Klerk did not have strong enough evidence to take drastic measures against the highest ranking officers at what was then a delicate stage in the transition process.