SA police hit-squad trial opens

Johannesburg - When street clashes, drive-by shootings and assassinations killed thousands of rival blacks, the African National Congress accused the apartheid government of helping to foment violence.

President F W de Klerk and other government officials denied the allegations as propaganda and challenged the ANC to provide proof. Yesterday a white police commander stood trial in Pretoria on more than 100 charges from murder to theft and fraud in a case that could verify ANC accusations.

Eugene de Kock smiled at friends and relatives as he pleaded innocent to all the charges. He is accused of heading a special police unit - Vlakplaas, from the farm where it was based - that allegedly specialised in murders of anti- government activists and collaborating with ANC opponents to instigate political violence.

Former unit members began disclosing its actions six years ago and an independent judicial commission led by Justice Richard Goldstone last year uncovered evidence of Vlakplaas police crimes. Now the ANC-led government wants to set up a truth commission to recommend granting amnesty to people who disclose full details of their apartheid-era crimes.

Mr de Kock's lawyer, Flip Hattingh, has said he was studying the possibility of having Mr de Kock apply for amnesty and could seek a trial postponement until completion of truth commission proceedings, expected to last at least 18 months.

Prosecutors lodged charges intended to show that Mr de Kock committed murder and other crimes for personal gain, not political reasons. The judge has final say on whether to delay the trial because the charges involved non-political crimes.

The trial could uncover links between Vlakplaas and top officials of the previous government led by Mr de Klerk, now a deputy president in the ANC-led government. Mr de Kock's treatment in custody showed the loyalty of some whites to the apartheid-era leadership. He was in minimum security and had drinks, television and other comforts until a newspaper disclosed his situation.

nMr de Klerk said yesterday that the 1982 bombing of the London office of the ANC was "wrong and should not have been done". He had never been a part of any decision by an apartheid government to commit a crime. "I distance myself from atrocities and from assassinations," he told a news conference. The former South African spymaster Craig Williamson had claimed that agents of the former white government blew up the ANC's London headquarters in 1982.