Scores die in days of SA township street battles: Squatter camp residents accuse police of trying to wreck peace talks, writes Karl Maier

THE TEENAGE boys known as 'comrades' who man the street barricades of stone and metal scraps at the entrance of Mandela Park squatters' camp, are on the front line of a war gripping black townships just 30 miles east of Johannesburg that has claimed up to 70 lives this week.

Street battles between supporters of the African National Congress, Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and the security forces have been raging since an ANC demonstration through the nearby Tokoza township on 22 May ended in a firefight. The police said they warned the ANC against parading down that route because it passed directly in front of hostels where staunchly pro-Inkatha Zulu workers live.

For residents of Mandela Park, a sprawling camp of nearly 30,000 people who live in rickety tin and wooden shacks, the war began when they tried to join the march into the nearby white town of Aberton to present demands for a speedy conclusion of multi-party negotiations for democratic elections.

By the time they reached Khumalo Road that Saturday morning, the rest of the marchers were in flight as police and residents of the KwaMadala hostel fired into the crowd. 'I saw them aiming at the people,' said Nelson Nikelo, the chairman of the Mandela Park community association. 'They were firing R-4 assault rifles, direct.'

When the Mandela Park residents returned to their homes, they found the Casspirs, police armoured vehicles, circling the squatter camp. When a team of independent monitors arrived from the local Peace Committee, witnesses said, the police fled.

For most of Sunday, Mandela Park stayed clear of the battles between ANC supporters and IFP militants and the police in the adjacent townships of Tokoza and Katlehong. The respite was shortlived. On Sunday night, several Casspirs arrived at the barricades at the camp's entrance and began launching tear-gas canisters and firing birdshot into the area. After several minutes they opened up with live ammunition, killing one man.

The Casspirs returned the next day, but this time the police surrounded the camp, apparently searching for weapons. A police helicopter hovered overhead, as the police again began by launching tear-gas down the narrow alleyways and ended by firing live ammunition. A man was killed as he fled his home.

By 5.30am on Tuesday, the security forces were back. Several residents said the first thing they remembered upon awaking that morning was the smell of tear-gas pouring through their shacks. Heavy shooting left 15 people wounded and one dead.

Several hours later Winnie Mandela, the estranged wife of ANC president Nelson Mandela, arrived to address a rally. As she finished her speech, the Casspirs roared up and dispersed residents with tear-gas and birdshot. Another eight people were wounded. Mandela Park joined the other townships in launching a two-day stayaway.

Wednesday saw the police come at 10.30am, shouting 'The ANC is shit' and 'The ANC is not going to take you anywhere'. Another round of tear- gas and birdshot left five people wounded. Later that day, Tokyo Sexwale of the ANC's National Executive came and told camp residents that they were justified in fighting but only in self-defence. He told them to return to work; they did so the next day.

The police have justified their assaults on Mandela Park and other black residential areas by saying they are searching for gunmen. In this week's battles on the East Rand the security forces have certainly suffered casualties; many Casspirs have bullet holes confirming they have taken fire. But in the view of Mandela Park residents, the police are the enemy, submitting them to repeated raids in an effort to thwart the multi-party negotiations to end white rule.

'These people want to wreck the talks, because certain parties will claim we cannot go to elections while there is so much violence,' Mr Nikelo said. President F W de Klerk 'is trying to stall the day of freedom'.

The government declared Tokoza, Tembisa and Katlehong townships as unrest areas yesterday and the police imposed overnight curfews.